Fort Worth — Can a hero have holes in his socks? Katori Hall’s award-winning play at Jubilee Theatre brings Martin Luther King down from The Mountaintop—and asks us to remember the man, not the icon.
Playwright Katori Hall, interviewed at Columbia University in 2011: There’s so much information [about MLK] out there, but there’s nothing that cuts to the core of how you deal with knowing there’s a bullet waiting for you. I wanted to dramatically represent that in a way that could affect people, could move people, and, maybe, could change people’s lives. This man stepped up, in spite of. This man changed the world, in spite of. What could I do?
It looks like the setup for a mid-century motel romp—lonely man and perky hotel maid meet in his room on a rainy night—but playwright Katori Hall has something more on her mind in this de-mythologizing (and fictional) look at the last hours of Martin Luther King’s life. In The Mountaintop at Jubilee Theatre, there’s no denying the low-level hum of human attraction between King (Bryan Pitts) and Camae (Ashley Wilkerson), a young housekeeper who brings him a late-night cup of coffee. She teases; he flirts; sparks fly. But on this stormy night in Memphis, in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, a bit of banter is just one way to push back against the darkness outside.
Jubilee Artistic Director Tre Garrett confidently directs this North Texas premiere of Mountaintop, which after its London premiere in 2009 won the Olivier Award as Best New Play, and was produced at Roundabout Theatre in New York with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the roles. The 32-year-old Hall has a talent for vividly realized speech; she was raised in Memphis and hasn’t lost her ear for that city’s street sound. Mountaintop is her imagining of a very human Dr. King who, as she says, “in spite of” having his home bombed, his phones bugged, his leadership challenged, his life threatened…fought through his fears, and kept going.
The play has been called “controversial”—but are 21st century audiences even a little bit shocked that public figures act like Real People in private? That great men can have flaws—or “stanky” feet—and still remain great? Hall’s script wields comedy and pathos to strike an effective balance between building up and tearing down, giving us a King who flinches away from claps of thunder…but who, knowing he’s marked for death, will walk out of that room in the morning, ready to continue the work.
On the night of April 3, 1968 Dr. King is coming off a long day and an emotional high. He’s just delivered his final prophetic speech—“I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land”—and here he is, out of cigarettes, tired to the bone, and needing coffee to keep him up and working on the next speech, a plea for “my sweet America” to reject the war in Vietnam.
The man can’t stop himself, it seems.
But he stops for Camae, who comes in to deliver coffee and the next day’s newspaper (which, chillingly, makes public the name of King’s motel) and stays to praise him, disagree with him, knock him down a peg—sometimes all in one sentence. Miraculously, she seems to be what he needs from minute to minute: friend, fan and comforter; someone to challenge, probe, and make fun; someone to lift him up with her certainty that the future will fulfill many of his dreams. She even, bless her, carries his favorite brand of smokes.
As Camae (the name is a mash-up of “Carrie Mae”—the name of playwright Hall’s mother, who as a Memphis 15-year-old wasn’t allowed to attend King’s speech that night), Ashley Wilkerson surprises us by being the character onstage we can’t stop watching. The girl can sashay—and with a cocked hip and a wicked smile, Wilkerson can project young, sweet, and no-nonsense tough in one swift motion.
It is, Camae says, her “first day” on the job, and though she seems dazzled to meet “Preacher King” at first, she doesn’t stay shy for long. Apologizing with every other sentence for her “cussing”—and preening at herself in the mirror—Camae begins by jabbing at Dr. King’s un-preacherly smoking habit (as she lights up another). Soon enough, she’s doing some “testifyin’” of her own—telling him that marching isn’t enough—“Walking will only get you so far, Preacher King”—and that the “Panthers” may be right about the need for bolder action.
As MLK, Pitts appeared to be settling into his role on opening night. A compelling physical presence onstage, he was most effective in active moments: lunging for a telephone and taking it apart to search for a “bug”, leaning into the same phone with palpable longing for wife and home, repeating “Corrie, pick up, pick up.” Yet a few too many of his lines seemed to be skimming along the surface of the character, not coming up from a deep place within. Hall has written a moving part—though a daunting one; how brave do you have to be to play a legend?—and it will be interesting to see how Pitts grows with the role over the month-long run of the play.
To say much more about the plot would give too much away. Let’s just say that in the time it takes to flick a switch, this brightly-lit slice of realism takes on a mysterious glow that pulls the plot in quite another direction. We shouldn’t really be too surprised. There are clues to be found—for one, in the way the natural world outside the door seems to comment on the action: thunder clapping, rain pouring, weather even blocking the exits from King’s close encounter in that room.
In that historical-magical vein, Jubilee’s set, sound and lighting designers—Ellen Doyle Mizner, David Lanza and Nikki Deshea Smith—have devised some interesting stage effects that move the story from the piercingly authentic ‘60s motel room (the black Ma Bell dial phone says it all) and into a realm of stars and history. One minor suggestion: at one point, the overlay of music and sound almost overwhelm Camae’s poetical chant; to hear Hall’s words (do I hear a playwright applauding?) things might need to be dialed down a notch.
Jubilee opens the evening with a short history of Dr. King’s life and work—and if there’s any wondering “why”, a look at younger audience members should remind us that while many Americans carry living memories of those days, the details of history can disappear all too quickly. [On a personal note: I remember “White” and “Colored” drinking fountains, and segregated theaters and restaurants all around Fort Worth and Dallas. My slightly younger sisters and brother don’t remember them at all—but they’re a part of our history.] The story bears telling again and again, and The Mountaintop tells it well, helping us see past the national holiday and the massive statue on the mall in Washington, to the Martin Luther King Jr. who loved life—but believed freedom was something worth dying for.