From the imagination of playwright Katori Hall and into the hands of director Jasmine Guy comes The Mountaintop - the latest offering of True Colors Theatre Company. Now playing at Southwest Arts Center through December 16, the play is a captivating envisage of the night before Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. After delivering one of his most famous speeches, King returns to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In the privacy of his hotel room, King’s iconic public persona takes a back seat and he is seen as a human being with flaws amid his greatness.
The play is creative and bold, turning some idealistic notions of King and even some perceptions of God upside down. I wasn’t ready for a King who drank or smoke, and I wanted to close my eyes at the slightest hint of any of his indiscretions with women. While play isn't controversial like Ralph D. Abernathy’s 1989 autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, watching a public depiction of King that is other than damn near perfect feels almost sacrilegious. However, Hall manages to contemplate King’s human-ness and private life without assassinating his character.
Though the play is inspired by some truths, it is a fictional account. Knowing that only makes me want to know the real story of the night before King was killed. I also want to know what his actual conversational voice sounded like. I want to know what the early edition April 4, 1968 newspapers said about him and about the speeches he had been preparing.
At the play I looked around and wondered if any members of the King family had seen it. I thought about how they might feel seeing or hearing about the play. My guess is that it would not be easy. Unlike most common depictions of King, this imagining is very personal. It is different than seeing King march or speak from behind a podium. There is no sanctuary in seeing personal effects such as cigarettes and a suitcase. There is a real feel to hearing a phone call to "Corrie", a flushing the toilet, mention of King's stinking feet. Yet, to imagine something of King that says of him personally, “I AM a Man” and to hear the question “So if you were me, what would you do” makes this play compelling.
In her role of the Camae, award-winning actress Demetria McKinney was outstanding and impressive. She was true-to-form in delivering the stuff of which awards are made. Starring alongside the Kingian character she held her own, brilliantly fusing Camae’s humor, rawness, and consciousness.
The only thing detracting terribly from the play is the depiction of King’s everyday manner of speaking. Though there is no question that Danny Johnson has what it takes for such a role, he fails to capture how King – an articulate Morehouse Man and outstanding orator - must have sounded when he was not speaking or preaching. Contrasted with his otherwise excellent acting, Johnson’s depiction of King’s voice sounds like a annoying caricature. In fact, when King first spoke in the play, I honestly thought it was an intended joke and I almost laughed. The same imitation stole effective realism from an otherwise well-executed portrayal. Finally, the ill-placed voice depiction finds its true placement and power as the play ends. Still, the play achieves well King’s contemplation of his destiny and what legacy he will leave.
The Mountaintop doesn’t end predictably with a felled drum major. Instead, it concludes with a greater imagining.