Dallas — There is a giddy sort of excitement mixed with anxiety when we confront the humanity of our idols. Whether they be artists, religious figures, musicians, great leaders, or even our parents, in most cases the reality rarely matches up to the myth. However, sometimes elements of actual personhood can make a few even more transcendent.
Such is the case with The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s warts-and-all treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last (not so) lonely night on earth spent in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. on April 3, 1968. The multi-talented and multi-accomplished Hall won a 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play, reflecting Mountaintop’s London popularity. The play’s 2011 Broadway run (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett) garnered a more subdued critical reaction.
Hall’s play is an intimate look at a humanized Dr. King who, in her fictionalized account, is a sweating, chain-smoking, smelly-footed man who lies to his wife and flirts with other women. It’s a precarious conceit that requires all of the extremely limited elements (two actors, 85 minutes with no intermission, and one set) to work in perfect concert.
Dallas Theater Center’s crackling production, directed with a warm touch by Akín Babatundé, comes mighty close to scaling that mountain.
The play begins with a silhouette of a man crouched over in darkness, as the lights come up we recognize the man as Dr. King (Brierley Resident Acting Company member Hassan El-Amin) because of that famous cadence and accent. It’s a stormy night, and he is suffering from paranoia (justified), a cough, and the lackluster turnout for his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of the sanitation workers’ strike.
Camae (Southern Methodist University MFA student Tiana Kaye Johnson), a hotel maid on her first day, joins the reverend after he orders up some coffee. She is initially starstruck by Dr. King, but her spunky precocity soon asserts itself in their flirtatious conversations about love, civil rights, oratorical skill, and the life hereafter. It may not sound like much, but these two actors in one room for the entire play is more than enough.
El-Amin’s King is not a caricature; he captures the essence of the man who was earthly, charming, and passionate all at once. He is particularly skilled at finding the great beats between fiery testifier and a tired man fraught with the moments of quiet desperation.
Johnson as the feisty, foul-mouthed Camae is a vision. It is difficult to overshadow a character as iconic as Martin Luther King; however, Johnson electrifies the stage with her performance. There is a secret twist concerning who Camae is that few will guess that adds even more delicious texture to her personification.
Special recognition for Bob Lavallee’s “moldy motel room in Memphis” set. You can almost smell the stale cigarette smoke (and soon you will) saturating every ugly inch. Deft lighting design by Alan C. Edwards completes the sometimes shadowy and other times illuminated (and illuminating) look of the play.
Like some of Dr. King’s greatest speeches, we are transported beyond our here and now to somewhere else in this production of The Mountaintop, and knowing more about the mere man who started and inspired countless movements deepens our appreciation of the journey.