When the curtain rises on NC State LIVE’s Tuesday, April 17th, presentation of L.A. Theatre Works’ production of The Mountaintop, it’s late at night on April 3, 1968. We are “flies-on-the-wall” in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. We are about to spend an hour and a half with one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century (on the last night of his life).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is attempting to relax and recharge after giving what is to be his final speech, the one in which he exclaimed, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” Buckle your seatbelt, because L.A. Theatre Works’ rendition of Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall’s 2009 West End and 2011 Broadway play, The Mountaintop is about to take us to our own mountaintop, right here in 2018. And keep that seatbelt buckled, because under Shirley Jo Finney’s direction, this compelling work whisks us along to its poignant conclusion, providing plenty of laughs, insights, and inspirations along the way.
When the play opens, Dr. King is tired and plagued by a nagging cough. He is out of cigarettes, and his roommate is taking forever to come back with them. He needs a cup of coffee, but the front desk tells him that it is too late for room service. Enter Camae, a new employee of this motel at which King has frequently stayed; she has his coffee, and she has his brand of cigarettes. Coincidence? Or is there something to learn about this character?
What follows is an interaction between the two that fleshes out Dr. King as a very sympathetic and endearing person. Indeed, we meet the very human man (complete with flaws), as well as the revered “saint” and “martyr” that we have learned about.
Gilbert Glenn Brown’s portrayal of Dr. King is phenomenal — expertly nuanced. We believe the fatigue as well as the wit and the determination. Even in Stewart Theatre’s large venue, Brown’s performance provides an intimate experience of the man that has become the legend.
Karen Malina White is a delight as Camae. At first, the character is somewhat awestruck, but she soon becomes completely comfortable in King’s presence. However, she repeatedly apologizes for her relaxed, playful profanity. As the scene unfolds, it becomes quite clear that White is a bundle of sheer energy!
L.A. Theatre Works prefaces this production with an explanation of their staging technique, which we found to be unique and satisfying. The actors face the audience at all times, giving us a front-facing view of the actors, even as we imagine and accept that they would actually be facing each other a good share of the time. However, they move to different areas of the stage, simulating the characters’ movements and actions in the motel room.
Sound designer Mark Holden and lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi combine to provide (among other wizardry) believable bolts of thunder and lightning in the portentous storm that hit Memphis that night. And costumes, designed by Carin Jacobs, reflect the era.
Scenic designer Rich Rose provides a sparse, yet realistic set; and the performance is enhanced by video, designed by Sean Cawelti, which plays on a screen at the back of the set.
As entertaining, enlightening, and endearing as this production is, its most notable feature is its “pass-it-on” message, the “call to action” that it creates. It reminds us that Dr. King was, at root, an ordinary human being and that all of us ordinary human beings can pick up the baton that his legacy has passed on to us.
Dr. King is remembered most prominently as a civil rights leader, as a nonviolent crusader against racial injustice. Katori Hall’s play reminds us, however, that King’s message was much wider than that. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and a champion of working-class people, regardless of race.
We heartily recommend this play. It contains a major surprise (which we refuse to spoil); and, suffice it to say, the ending is intense!
This 38-city tour, which began in early January, has only three performances remaining — on April 21st in Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, FL; on April 23rd at the Lenfest Center for the Arts at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA; and on April 26th at The Whiting in Flint, MI.
SECOND OPINION: April 8th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article206900694.html.
THE MOUNTAINTOP (NC State LIVE, April 17 in Stewart Theatre in N.C. State University’s Talley Student Union in Raleigh, NC).
SHOW: https://live.arts.ncsu.edu/events/17-18-season/l-a-theatre-works/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/308939462911071/.
2017-18 SEASON: https://live.arts.ncsu.edu/events/17-18-season/.
THE TOUR: https://latw.org/current-tour and https://baylinartists.com/la-theatre-works-the-mountaintop/.
PRESENTER: http://www.ncsu.edu/centerstage/index.html, https://www.facebook.com/NCStateLIVE, and https://twitter.com/NCStateLIVE.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr. (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.thekingcenter.org/ (The King Center), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr. (Wikipedia).
The Mountaintop (2009 West End and 2011 Broadway play): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4384 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-mountaintop-490428 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mountaintop (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Katori Hall (Memphis, TN-born playwright): http://katorihall.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/katori-hall-490430 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2183922/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katori_Hall (Wikipedia).
L.A. Theatre Works (company founded in 1974 to give voice to underrepresented groups): https://latw.org/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/LATheatreWorks/ (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/LATheatreWorks (Twitter page), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L.A._Theatre_Works (Wikipedia), https://www.youtube.com/user/latheatreworks1 (YouTube channel).
Shirley Jo Finney (Los Angeles, CA director and teacher): http://www.shirleyjofinney.com/ (official website), https://latw.org/artist-public-profile/shirley-jo-finney (tour bio), http://www.tft.ucla.edu/2011/10/shirley-jo-finney/ (UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/shirley-jo-finney-479760 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0003629/ (Internet Movie Database).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
EDITOR’S NOTE: Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.