Review: ‘The Mountaintop’ by L.A. Theatre Works at George Mason University

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On April 3, 1968, a rainy night in Memphis, Tennessee, in a dingy hotel, there was a man working on a speech. This man had missed birthdays and anniversaries in pursuit of his dream. He was a man who didn’t want to be a martyr—a man named Dr. Martin Luther King. The Mountaintop, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, written by playwright Katori Hall, produced by L.A. Theatre Works, and in the midst of a 38-city tour, is a play that digs into the hearts of the audience and engages them on deep emotional levels.

Gilbert Glenn Brown as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in L.A. Theatre Works' The Mountaintop. Photo by Kirk Richard Smith.
Gilbert Glenn Brown as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in L.A. Theatre Works’ The Mountaintop. Photo by Kirk Richard Smith.

Fifty years after the release of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Kerner Commission Report, which said that America is moving “toward two societies, one black and one white,” The Mountaintop explored political themes of protest versus accommodation in an explosive and at times gut-wrenching way.

As the rain pelted the earth outside, the play showed King in a frantic state—he had just given his famous “Mountaintop” speech and was working on a speech titled “Why America is going to Hell.” King was an agitated man looking for ways to ease his angst, including calling his colleague Ralph Abernathy on the phone to get him Pall Mall cigarettes to smoke. King was a man with so many death threats that he felt that “fear has become my best friend.” That statement presaged a tragic event in history, April 4, 1968.

Gilbert Glenn Brown (from Netflix’s Stranger Things, and OWN’s Queen Sugar) was magnificent as King. Brown brought King’s sing-song voice and mannerisms to his performance.

Karen Malina White as Camae in L.A. Theatre Works' The Mountaintop. Photo by Kirk Richard Smith.
Karen Malina White as Camae in L.A. Theatre Works’ The Mountaintop. Photo by Kirk Richard Smith.

Karen Malina White played a fictional hotel maid, Camae, who showed up and upset King’s already rickety proverbial apple cart. White (well known for the film Lean on Me with Morgan Freeman and TV’s The Cosby Show), was sometimes defiant, sometimes saucy and always outspoken. Camae, by her own admission, “curses worse than a sailor with the clap” and told King “Civil rights will kill you before those Pall Malls will.”

King and Camae developed a sexually-tinged banter: “You’re a pulpit poet,” Camae told King, who said at one point “Everybody should break a rule every now and then.” As their conversation moved to more serious topics, it was clear that Camae was of the opinion that mere protesting alone wouldn’t gain black Americans full civil rights.

Brown and White were at their best when the play took a left turn into supernatural territory, with Camae making a stunning reveal about herself. At that point, Brown played King as a man stripped to his barest emotional threads.

Director Finney brought forth a play with an unusual use of stage business; actors would, for example, stand at opposite sides of the stage and hug the air, but the rear-projected, pre-recorded footage on the upstage screen would show them hugging each other. At other times, an actor would mime closing a door, and a door would close on screen.

The minimalist set, by Scenic Designer Rich Rose, included two mics stage left, another two mics stage right., and an upstage table with two 1960s-style phones on it, and three more mics in front of the table. The rear-projection was expertly designed by Video Designer Sean Cawelti.

L.A. Theatre Works, which produces audio versions of stage shows, has benefited for years from the talents of Senior Radio Producer Ronn Lipkin; his skills were on display in The Mountaintop.

The Mountaintop received a heartfelt standing ovation. The show will remind you that anyone and everyone can make a positive difference in society. To paraphrase King, the baton of justice “can be dropped, but anyone can pick it up.”

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Mountaintop played for one night only, April 14, 2018, at L.A. Theatre Works, performing at the George Mason University Center for the Arts Concert Hall – 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, Virginia. For tickets to future events at George Mason University, go online.