By NICK SWAN
In a display of brilliance that was at once both profoundly sobering and yet promisingly optimistic, the Kitchen Theatre of downtown Ithaca opened their production run of playwright Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop on Thursday.
The Mountaintop is Katori Hall’s dramatized and imagined account of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night alive, on April 3, 1968. The play takes place entirely within the stained, yellowing walls of a musty room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the drama’s beginning, an exhausted Dr. King enters the room, returning from a rally earlier that evening, and yells out the front door, urging his close friend Ralph Abernathy to go purchase cigarettes. When he closes the door, he proceeds to read from his notes on a sermon he is planning to give in the following days. He eventually orders room service from the front desk of the motel, and soon enough, a young maid named Camae arrives with a pot of coffee. As King strongly desires to smoke, and Ralph has yet to return, he asks Camae for a cigarette. When she gives him one, the two strike up a conversation, and it is from this discourse the remainder of the play develops. Camae is initially nervous around King; she only knows him as the famous “Preacher King” who frequently appears on television, so if she curses or makes an otherwise unholy remark, she immediately apologizes to King. However, King begins to flirt with her, imploring her to share her last cigarette with him, and the talk between King and Camae becomes more fluent, even sensual. King laments over his most recent work in Memphis, a peaceful march which turned violent as those involved became hostile and looted stores. Camae delivers a mock sermon of her own, where she ultimately urges her fake audience to kill white people. This prompts Dr. King to remind Camae of the importance of non-violence, and to wonder whether the true purpose of his peaceful disobedience is actually being interpreted and followed by African Americans.
It rains throughout the night, lightning striking periodically. Each strike causes Dr. King to jump with fear, as he has become paranoid due to the recent stress placed on him by adversaries of his work, such as the FBI or racist citizens. One such strike sends him into a shock of panic, and Camae soothes him, calling him by his Christian name, Michael. King becomes immediately suspicious, as very few people know him as Michael, and in this instant, it is revealed that Camae is actually an angel. Camae was given the task by God to inform Dr. King of his impending death, and to collect him when he dies. At first King accepts this premise, but he soon becomes afraid, even pleading with God, who is, in fact, an African American female, over the telephone to let him finish his work. However, God does not let him stay, and the next day, King is assassinated.
The poignancy of The Mountaintop arises from Hall’s characterization of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is natural to assume that Dr. King lived perfectly by his Christian values, however, historical accounts suggest otherwise, highlighting various instances of adultery committed by King. Hall clearly bases her version of Martin Luther King on these accounts. Watching King smoke, curse and flirt with a young girl may be shocking to some, yet this characterization allows the audience to identify with King and it also evokes increased sympathy towards him, as they are able to see that he is similar to any common man. Actor Landon G. Woodson portrayed King with a high degree of dramatic professionalism. Perhaps the most memorable moment in Woodson’s performance occurred when King was struggling to accept his impending death; in one instant, King is in blissful denial, while in the next he is sobbing into the lap of Camae, and Woodson brings the audience to tears along with him.
Angel Moore’s delivery was excellent in the role of Camae. In the beginning of the drama, Moore played the role with the naïveté and innocence of a young woman, yet as the conversation develops, Moore acted with increased self-assuredness and forthrightness as her real identity was revealed. This contrast between perceived weakness and strength of the two Camaes is established clearly by Moore. Director Nicole A. Watson powerfully cultivated the provocative and dynamic relationship between Camae and Dr. King. Although the dialogue between the two characters is interesting in and of itself, Watson extends each line with excellent stage direction, utilizing the intimate atmosphere of the Kitchen Theatre’s stage.
The Kitchen Theatre deserves high praise for producing The Mountaintop, as this play is quite relevant to the sociopolitical turmoil of 2015. At the conclusion of the play, Camae shows King a glimpse of the future, revealing a peaceful Promised Land on Earth. King then addresses the audience directly, and urges political action rather than complacency. He states that it is not acceptable to epitomize himself as the only martyr of peace, but rather that it is the responsibility of all to carry on the “baton” of freedom. This call to action is the moral of the play, and a reminder that everyone must remain vigilant to the threat of intolerance and hatred.