He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve seen the Promised Land
I MAY NOT GET THERE WITH YOU
Were the prophetic words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. the day before he was assassinated on the balcony of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968. To commemorate him, a few days later Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Although it seems almost Biblicalin the play, in reality, King lived with death threats every single day of his life.
Written by a certifiable genius and Olivier award recipient, Katori Hall, the superbly crafted play, The Mountaintop is an imaginary account of a long conversation between Dr. King and a motel maid the night before his assassination. Although it is played without an intermission, the play more or less has two “acts”, in the first King, lonely, tense and trying to prepare for the next day’s protest, invites what appears to be a young, pretty African American room-service maid into his room to lend him a cigarette ( NB. cigarettes at that time were verboten for Baptist preachers)
One thing does not lead to another, but what ensues is an amazing piece of writing in which just about every serious issue surrounding the civil rights movement is discussed in the most hilarious, comical verbal tango imaginable. Most poignantly the issue of how to deal with the hatred engendered by lynchings and violence, was discussed in human and religious terms
Seamlessly the playwright moves us to the second half, when King realizes that the “maid” is not just a maid, nor is she a spy from the FBI, or the KKK sent to discredit him, but someone sent to “take him to the other side”. During this “act”, he discusses his life as a man, much like Nelson Mandela did- and questions his life’s work. Was leading the movement worth sacrificing his marriage and family? Did he really want to die so soon? Would he be able to say good-bye to his wife and hug his children once more ? Would the movement survive without him? (NB He was 25 years old, in his first year as a preacher with a newborn baby, when the call came to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. When he died he was 39 years old and his youngest child was 2 years old.)
Since Ms. Hall is from Memphis, the dialogue alone upholds that American literary prejudice that the Southern oral traditions of storytelling create the best writers. Written using several appropriate dialects, all intertwined like an intricate Persian rug complimenting each other, the audience hears King’s deeply resonating “Orator-Preacher” voice and cadence, his street-wise African American dialect, his educated dialect and from the maid, we hear just plain sassy language vintage African American Southern speak. Had I not known otherwise, I would have assumed that the writer was also a dialectologist, her ability to reproduce the dialects was that good.
Although Reginald André Jackson was not as stocky as King; however, with hair, moustache and make-up he looked just like him and even more so-sounded just like him. Brianne A. Hill as the “maid” delivered an amazing performance. Together, on stage, the verbal pyrogenics of the two were astounding, a combination of excellent writing, superb comic timing, brilliant direction by Valerie Curtis-Newton, and a compelling dramatic and human situation.
Just a brief note about the set. The Lorraine Motel, where he was shot has become part of a Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and his room was kept exactly as he left it, so the pictures on the internet match the set. Technically it was a difficult show, the sound and lighting effects worked well enough, but it was a play based on language and a two person play of that length is not for the faint of heart, but both actors kept the energy going for ninety minutes. It was a tour de force.
I would say that the ending was a little weak, but I can’t imagine how you could end this without gunshots which would have not been a good ending. However the ending hardly mattered. It was a morally uplifting play, the comedy revealed more of the profoundly serious side of death than a serious treatment would have. It was chocked full of the history of the civil rights movement but never seemed didactic in the least, on the contrary, the audience was laughing joyfully the whole time.
In the play, with help from a sassy friend, Martin Luther King faced death as Everyman. Get your tickets now!!!!!
The Mountaintop. Artswest. 4711 California Ave SW, West Seattle, Seattle, WA 98116 Wed-Sat. 7:30, Sun 3 pm. Tickets:http://www.artswest.org/theatre/buy-tickets/tel (206) 938-0339 (NB Street parking in West Seattle is free-no meters!)