Review: ‘The Mountaintop’ at People’s Light & Theatre Company

The Mountaintop is a fantasia rooted in one of the most tragic events of the twentieth century. Set on the final night in the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Katori Hall’s play takes King into an alternate plane that views his life, and death, from a radically different perspective. While the journey Hall takes King on has a few unexpected turns, it ultimately humanizes him and placing his message in a modern context.

Patrese D. McClain and Bowman Wright. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Patrese D. McClain and Bowman Wright. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Hall sets her play in King’s suite at the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, the night before King was assassinated while standing just outside that suite. (Tony Cisek’s set design depicts a room so decrepit that it makes King’s struggles palpable.) In the play’s opening moments, we see King returning to his room just after delivering his final speech – the one in which he seemed to foresee his imminent fate:

I’ve been to the mountaintop…. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

But the Martin Luther King we see here is not the masterful orator who spoke with such fire that night, the one we’re used to seeing in newsreels and history books. Worn out by travelling and death threats, and missing his family, he coughs, paces the floor nervously, peers through the curtains, and checks his phone for FBI bugging devices. And after ordering room service, he engages in a long conversation with Camae, a pretty young maid who has just started working at the Lorraine that day.

A lively spirit with a vulgar vocabulary, Camae is like no one King has met before. She’s also quite aware of King’s reputation as a philanderer. As they flirt and share cigarettes, she brings out a lighthearted side of King. But eventually their conversation takes a serious turn as she reveals something that leads him, and the play, in a different direction.

The play’s second half finds King confronting his legacy, pondering his imminent death, and seeing how his message will be treated when he’s not around to deliver it. It’s a fascinating concept. Peculiarly, though, Hall has her fictional version of King come to embrace a new age-style theology that seems miles away from the Baptist faith that the real King preached. It comes off more like a 21st century reinterpretation of King than the real thing.

The Mountaintop also takes a left turn from reality into fantasy, one that is disorienting at first but which eventually pays off by explicitly connecting King with the civil rights struggles of the present day. References added to the play since its 2011 Broadway run, which demonstrate how the list of victims of racial violence keeps expanding, add power to the play’s climax.

Bowman Wright doesn’t imitate King – his timbre doesn’t have the depth or gravity of King’s – yet he is completely believable as the genuine, fragile man behind the larger-than-life hero.

As Camae, Patrese D. McClain bursts with nervous excitement at first, using an exaggerated Southern drawl (she calls King “Preacher Kang”). McClain’s charm, coupled with her strong chemistry with Wright, makes for a winning performance.

Bowman Wright and Patrese D. McClain. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Bowman Wright and Patrese D. McClain. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The direction by Steve H. Broadnax III builds power gradually, delicately balancing comedy and drama. The drama culminates in a potent tableau that uses video (Katherine Freer is the Projection Designer), music (Justin Ellington) and lighting (Joshua L. Schulman) to augment Hall’s rich speeches.

As Wright stands on the stage and invokes the names of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown – while speaking of the need to pass the baton of freedom to future generations – Playwright Katori Hall delivers King’s message in a way that rings true today, louder than ever.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Mountaintop plays through October 30, 2016 at People’s Light & Theatre Company – 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 644-3500, or purchase them online.