Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop attempts to do something really great: to take an historical event that shook the world, and turn it into something new. Ms. Hall uses the last night that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent on Earth and reworks some of the details; she tweaks and enhances and fabricates certain aspects of it, and plants it firmly on a higher plane. That’s not to necessarily say it’s a better plane –- just elevated. But that’s all I really want to say about that; the story is worth experiencing for the mere fantastical aspect of it all.
I had the great fortune of seeing the original Broadway production, which featured Samuel L. Jackson, in his debut on the Great White Way, as Dr. King, and Angela Bassett as Camae, the maid at the Lorraine Motel, who spends the evening with him. While even those illustrious names couldn’t quite support some of the weaker sections of Ms. Hall’s work, they filled the piece with an incredible connectivity. Mr. Jackson’s electricity was palpable; he commanded the audience in a way that was reminiscent of the late Dr. King. Ms. Bassett gave an unforgettable performance as the mysterious Camae, navigating the tricky waters of her journey with precision.
One of the larger misfortunes in the current PlayMakers Repertory Company and Triad Stage production is that the actors, while fine, never fully take hold of the material. Lakisha May’s Camae is definitely sexy, and she has some really beautiful moments of truth and honesty. Cedric Mays’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was too skittish and weak of a player to have rallied the people the way Dr. King did. His delivery allowed for everything he spoke to carry the same weight of importance, so that when he actually did have something important to say, its significance was lost. I would chalk this up to opening weekend jitters; but this is the second weekend of the show’s run, so I’m not so sure.
While Camae and Dr. King spend the first 45 minutes or so bridging the gap to come together — after secrets are revealed and true intentions are voiced — the two reach a connection that is unlike any that we have experienced before. But Ms. May and Mr. Mays never quite hit the mark together, and some of the more emotionally impactful moments seemed glossed over or lacking in weight.
New York designer Junghyun Georgia Lee , who tackled by set and costumes, dresses Cedric Mays and Lakisha May smartly, and makes a bold choice in the set, placing the large window along the stage-right side, allowing for large curtains to stand between the audience and the action for parts of the top and the close of the show. The lighting design, done by Xavier Pierce, was sleek and appropriate, despite his questionable choice of two disco balls late in the show.
A major flaw comes at the climactic end, which I don’t want to get into much, as it would spoil much of the beauty of the moment. In the darkness, Ms. May takes on a small mic to help amplify her voice over a striking sound and video montage, designed by Robert Dagit and Nicholas Hussong, respectively, that was so overpowering, we still struggled to hear what she had to say at times. And from my perspective, these last 10-15 minutes of the show are the reason the show was written and why it is performed … and it was an auditory mess at times, the ear fighting to decipher what needed to be heard. The video was gorgeous, but the entire moment never quite gelled.
It may seem strange to now suggest that you go see the show, but I feel like you should — or at least read the script. I’m a big fan of Katori Hall’s piece, despite some of its shortcomings. Although I don’t think PlayMakers Rep and Triad Stage have the strongest execution of it, it’s a story worth experiencing. It will stick with you past the exit doors and have you talking about the What Ifs? of life and of death.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 26th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/09/katori-hills-the-mountaintop-is-an-intriguing-blend-of-fact-and-fiction-but-mostly-fiction/; Sept. 25th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-mountaintop-envisions-the-last-hours-of-martin-luther-king/Content?oid=3727140 and Sept. 18th mini-preview by Emma D. Miller: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/EventSearch?eventSection=1221530; Sept. 24th Durham, NC Spectacular Magazine review by Phyllis Coley: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Review—The-MountainTop—UNC-s-Playmakers—Powerful-Production-You-NEED-To-See—-Sept-18—Oct–6.html?soid=1103447982410&aid=GVGKog0Cydo; Sept. 23rd Raleigh, NC CVNC review by the Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=6365; Sept. 23rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by the Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/09/23/3222612/mountaintop-is-engaging-surprising.html; Sept. 19th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/x249844704/In-The-Mountaintop-an-imagining-of-MLK-s-last-night (Note You must register to read this article); Sept. 17th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Sarah Ang: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2013/09/mountaintop-0918; Aug. 27th Chapel Hill, NC Chapel Hill News preview: http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2013/08/27/3119428/theatrical-companies-to-collaborate.html; July 4th Greensboro, NC News & Record preview by Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane: http://www.news-record.com/go_triad/article_d15ab3c8-e42f-11e2-9ee5-0019bb30f31a.html; and June 25th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh preview by the BWW News Desk: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/PlayMakers-Triad-Stage-to-Present-THE-MOUNTAINTOP-Begin-918-20130625. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 18th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2013/09/katori-halls-stirring-drama-the-mountaintop-is-set-on-the-day-before-mlk-was-assassinated/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company and Triad Stage present THE MOUNTAINTOP at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1-4, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5, and 2 p.m. Oct. 6 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus; and at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and 22-24, 8 p.m. Oct. 25 and 26, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29-31, 8 p.m. Nov. 1 and 2, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5-7, 8 p.m. Nov. 8 and 9, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 in Triad Stage’s Pyrle Theater, 232 S. Elm St., Greensboro, North Carolina 27401.
Chapel Hill: $15-$45 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), except $15-per-ticket (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances. There are also discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.
Chapel Hill: 919-962-PLAY, email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single. Group Rates (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.
Greensboro: 866-579-TIXX or 336-272-0160 or http://triadstage.org/series/125/the-mountaintop#calendar. Group Rates (15+ tickets): 336-274-0067, ext. 221, or email@example.com.
Chapel Hill: http://www.playmakersrep.org/mountaintop.
Chapel Hill: http://www.playmakersrep.org/media/story.aspx?id=dabba87b-e8c3-424c-900e-1e55e2c66962.
PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep.
Triad Stage: http://triadstage.org/.
PlayMakers Page to Stage: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
Triad Stage’s Lucky 13th Season: http://triadstage.tumblr.com/.
Chapel Hill: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen (directions/parking: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo).
Greensboro: http://triadstage.org/ (directions: http://triadstage.org/visit and parking: http://triadstage.org/visit#parking.
NOTE 1 All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2 There will be a FREE post-show discussion with members of the creative team after the Sept. 29th show.
NOTE 3 There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 29th (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).
NOTE 4 From 1 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5th, the UNC Program in the Humanities will present a $75 program entitled “The History and Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement,” followed by a reception and the 7:30 p.m. performance of The Mountaintop (theater ticket is $28 extra). To see details and to register, click http://humanities.unc.edu/programs/adventures-in-ideas/civil-rights-movement/.
NOTE 5 The the Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions after the Oct. 5th and 6th performances.
The Mountaintop (2009 West End and 2011 Broadway play): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mountaintop (Wikipedia) and http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=490429 (Internet Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Katori Hall (playwright): http://katorihall.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katori_Hall (Wikipedia).
Raelle Myrick-Hodges (director): http://raellemyrickhodges.com/ (official website) and http://www.playmakersrep.org/ (PlayMakers Rep bio).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Civil Rights leader, 1929-68): http://www.thekingcenter.org/ (The King Center) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr. (Wikipedia).
Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC-based actor, director, and reviewer. A Gainesville, FL native, he earned a degree in Theatre Performance in 2005 from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. This spring, he played free-spirited speller Leaf Coneybear in Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh‘s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and he recently directed Raleigh Little Theatre‘s Sept. 6-29 presentation of Art. To read more of Jesse Gephart’s reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.