Since attending the opening night performance of the Atlanta premiere of The Mountaintop, presented by Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, two salient points from Katori Hall’s nimble script have stuck with me; first that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man, like any other man; and secondly, that there will never be another man like him. Like standing on top of any peak, this Mountaintop forces you to see the familiar from a uniquely different perspective. Hall’s fictional account of the final night of King’s life deconstructs and, then, subsequently reaffirms the greatness with which the world views Dr. King. The Mountaintop is not only a must see, but one of the truly intellectually and emotionally stimulating shows of the fall season.
Directed by Jasmine Guy, this two-character play asks the audience not to remember King as a near-saintly civil rights leader, but instead as a human being who felt deeply and fought tirelessly, despite his own personal limitations and mistakes. It is not until we have a strong understanding of both characters that we begin to understand the magnitude of their connection – a connection that drives the most powerful moments of the play.
As the play begins, Hall immediately shows the audience that this is not going to be a strictly reverential look at King. From asking friend Ralph Abernathy to get him a pack of cigarettes, to using the bathroom within earshot of the audience, to discussions of his smelly feet, the version of King that Danny Johnson embodies on stage is far more human than we are used to seeing. While Johnson’s general lack of resemblance to the play’s iconic protagonist requires an additional suspension of disbelief, his ease within King’s shoes (as smelly as they may be), allows the audience to connect with him. However, the bulk of the play lacks the eloquence and passion that is most associated with King, leaving spells where the audience is left to wonder whether Hall intended us to question whether King’s impassioned rhetoric was in fact genuine or a facade. That being said, Johnson turns on the pastoral fire when King delivers his final speech, from which the play derives its name. This speech leaves you wishing that a little more of this side of King had been evident throughout the show, because for most of the hour and 50 minutes, King plays second fiddle to the show’s other, more vibrantly drawn character.
Despite the examples of King’s humanity to open the show, the story truly begins when his room-service coffee is delivered by a young maid on her first day on the job. Camae (Demetria McKinney) is ample parts in awe of, flirtatious with, and the equal of King. McKinney’s presence on stage is the life force that drives this play. Often, two-character plays can become derailed by being overly wordy or intellectual, but McKinney’s dynamic performance keeps Hall’s train on track.
Camae is a constant study in contradiction; a seemingly well-educated young woman who swears like a sailor; a maid at a seedy motel who can wax poetic about the plight of her people; and a woman who, despite having just met him, seems to have a staggeringly large amount of details about King at her fingertips. These contradictions, and the openness King has with discussing his marital infidelities, lead him to suspect that she is a spook sent to seduce him. While as a theater lover I am obliged not to reveal whether or not she has been sent to his room with an ulterior motive, I will say that Camae’s final burst of energy and emotion was one of the most mesmerizing moments I have seen on an Atlanta stage in a long time. Camae’s faith in the power that King possesses illustrates that his ability to touch people of differing races, creeds, and colors comes not despite his human frailty, but because of it.
While Hall, who was in attendance for opening night, occasionally delves into the cliché that comes from dealing with such historically significant subjects, her script is at its best when King and Camae talk not about marches, racism, or politics, but instead about their individual humanities. The play, which won the 2010 Olivier Award for London’s Best New Play, very cleverly avoids the trappings of becoming too preachy or melancholy, and artfully leaves the audience with mountains of thoughts and emotions to digest.
The Atlanta premiere bears a unique connection to the 2011 Broadway version as well. The Artistic Director of the True Colors Theatre Company, Kenny Leon, directed Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett during the New York run.
The Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company production of The Mountaintop runs through December 16, 2012 at the Southwest Arts Center. The show runs approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without an intermission. For more information or tickets, please visit the theater’s website; you can also purchase tickets by calling 1-877-725-884.