The Mountaintop by Katori Hall is a remarkably affecting play full of humanity, faith, unexpected humor, and the Almighty. Strikingly directed by two time Helen Hayes award recipient Kevin S. McAllister, The Mountaintop envisions what might have happened after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous speech in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers in early April 1968.
In this speech, Dr. King had asked that everyone work together to take “a stand with greater determination…to make America a better nation.” He spoke of prophetically seeing the Promised Land from the mountaintop. He wondered out loud if he would reach the Promised Land. A Biblical reference that would remind some listeners, then and now, of Moses in Deuteronomy. For a refresher, God would not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land, but only see it from afar from atop Mt. Nebo. As it is written, “I will let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
The Mountaintop sets its fictional narrative after this speech as Dr. King (Curtis McNeil) goes to a dingy room in the Lorraine Motel to prepare for the next day. As a major storm is coming down outside of this room, a young woman named Camae (Shayla Simmons) knocks on Dr. King’s door. She brings him coffee that he requested from room service. Coffee to awaken him to think about his next day. But in Hall’s deft imagination, the fictional character of Camae takes on more significance.
Curtis McNeil as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shayla Simmons as Camae fully inhabit their characters in performances that evoke a vivid realness and true connections. They nimbly bring the political and the spiritual to the audience along with scenes of candid banter and teasing. With Hall’s imagination and McAllister’s sensitive touch, The Mountaintop’s Dr. King is an imperfect human with vanities; he is far removed from an all-knowing, confident, perfect person. Simmons and McNeil are remarkable in their naturalistic approach to their performances.
McNeil portrays a multi-dimensional Dr. King, a person with apprehensions and fears. He is a nervous man worried that the FBI has bugged his motel room, and wondering if anyone can carry on his agenda even Jesse Jackson. McNeil’s portrayal of Dr. King unveils an earthy man with ambition, but one who also has a need for a toothbrush and clean socks. A man full of himself one moment, and then in another moment, not unlike another Biblical reference – Job – arguing with and pleading with a Higher Being. A preacher usually focused on “why America is Going to Hell.”
McNeil moves about with the weight of a heavyweight boxer in the final rounds as if he is tired and trying to stand up while taking blows. A man who does not want to let his guard down. That is the power of The Mountaintop, to journey to find out if this fictional Dr. King lets himself be open to an emotional center.
As Camae, Simmons is a subtle actor to behold, well beyond her ways with words. Simmons says a ton without a word being uttered. Her eyes, her facial expressions, how she plants a hand on her hips, or her very carriage as she stands, or the way she struts a few feet. Simmons is a wonder of being “in the moment” even when just sitting in a chair not saying a word across from McNeil’s King. She just connects.
Camae is a force that Dr. King describes this way after one particular outburst of invective (and yes that includes the word *f-ck*) about the lesser points of non-violence against white hatred of African-Americans: “are you Malcolm X?” If McNeil’s Dr. King is a tiring boxer, Simmons as Camae is a bumblebee or a dancer, light on her feet.
Let me not paint The Mountaintop as all drama. One scene that leads to feathers flying is just a total, utter pleasure. (As an aside, if there is ever a need, please call me just to be in that one scene). More so, actors Simmons and McNeil are plain fun to observe as they flirt, tease, and banter.
The NextStop production is well-produced for the intimacy of the theater space. The set design by Evan Hoffmann is two beds, a chair, and a rumpled appearance. A fitting dinge is also conveyed by costume designer Paris Francesca, lighting by Lynn Joslin, sound by Yaritza Pacheco, and super props by Alex Wade which include a dial telephone. Expert rear projections by Samba Pathak brought me tears of sad recognition of real events. The preshow sound design of musical selections by Pacheco are notably top notch. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is always a church spiritual.
Katori Hall’s take on what might have happened on Dr. King’s final night of life is a close encounter with unforeseen twists of fate that spill over in a startling manner. The NextStop production is polished, vivid, and poetic. This line from The Mountaintop is not lost on me in our current days. It is a moment when Camae challenges Dr. King to name one thing “we all have in common.” The response, “We’re scared.”
Running time: About 95 minutes with no intermission.
Note: “We will be donating twenty of the closest seats to each performance to local high school students so that they can have a front row to history,” noted Evan Hoffmann, Producing Artistic Director. The “Front Row to History” Initiative will provide free front-row tickets for local high school students to see The Mountaintop.