The Mountaintop by Katori Hall
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night on earth
Kevin Hanchard as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop. Photo by David Cooper
Opening Night: The Mountaintop, a depiction of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night on earth is set in Room 306, the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee on the eve of his assassination, April 4, 1968. Gifted American playwright, Katori Hall, guides us through the 5 stages of loss and grief proposed by
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying." King confronts each universal stage - denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance. In fact, his final words in this compelling drama are, "I accept," as his image fades into a dazzling array of celestial stars thanks to Shaw's magical designers, Judith Bowden (set), Kevin Lamotte (lighting), and Andrew Smith (projections).
Tonight, we are happily reunited with talented Director Philip Akin and dazzling actor, Kevin Hanchard both from Shaw's previous terrific production of
Top Dog/Underdog. Add the other-worldly Alana Hibbert as Camae into the mix, and it's another must-see play at the Studio Theatre.
Exhausted from delivering an historic speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, in support of a sanitation workers' strike, King carefully closes the curtains (for safety) and tries to work on a speech in the low-budget motel, exhausted and coughing and in dire need of a Pall Mall cigarette.
Playwright Hall suggests, "This isn't the
'I Have a Dream' King. This is a more radical King. This is King, the man; not the myth. I want people to see that this extraordinary man - who is actually quite ordinary - achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we, as a people, interact with each other. That's a beautiful thing. And I want people in the audience to be like, 'If this man - who is so much a human being - can achieve such great things, then I, as this complicated human being, can create great things too.'"
King orders coffee from room service, and an attractive, playful, feisty, foul-mouthed, young maid arrives, announcing that it's her first night on the job. After sizing her up and staring at her attractive body, they engage in banter, but when Camae magically produces a Pall Mall from near her breast, King begins to suspect her charm, first experiencing paranoia and fear of entrapment. It turns out that she is an angel sent by a feminine, black God "with amazing hair" to help bring King to the other side. It sounds hokey, but Hanchard and Hibbert are so skilled, that they make it work wonderfully.
Ominous, loud thunder accompanies the actors throughout the night, the first strike so sudden and deafening that I almost jumped out of my seat, and others - like gun shots, literally take away King's ability to breathe. The special effects are clever - spring snow that barricades the door, flowers that erupt from the floor and a Dante-esque inferno that portends hell. A series of projections by Camae for King at the end, reveal a visual record of American history immediately after his death commencing with riots and fires in major cities like Detroit up to Rodney King ("Why can't we all just get along?"), concluding with the first black American president, Barak Obama.
We listen to King test and repeat phrases like "Why America is going to hell" for a future speech; we hear him phone home and talk to his wife and child. With Camae as his sounding board, we hear his aspirations and doubts, and we come to realize that he is much like us, but placed in time at this momentous fulcrum of American civil rights history. He is human - weary, disappointed
by the poor turnout for his speech and exhausted by constant threats on his life and that of his family. The first thing that he does upon entry at the hotel is to urinate. He takes his shoes off and complains of the smell. We learn intimate details such as the kind of flowers he sends to his wife, Coretta, and the fact via Camae ("I read your file.") that his given name is Michael. It's a great role for Hanchard, and he is up to the task as is Hibbert who must walk a fine line between firmness and cuteness, her impassioned speech at the end to accompany the projections, quite moving.
The momentousness of the situation is always balanced by playfulness as Hanchard tickles Hibbert on the bed and they engage in a pillow fight. Hanchard employs King's cadence that verges on song, and also his manner - serious and purposeful but again, amusing as well. In the end, King relies on his bedrock faith to balance the weakness of his flesh.
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. 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! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
(The final paragraph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s
, April 3, 1968, in Memphis, TN.)
The Shaw program notes, as usual, are quite helpful in enriching one's experience of this forceful drama. Here are some relevant sections:
American playwright, performer and journalist
Katori Hall (b.1981) has a deep connection to Memphis, Tennessee - much like the main character of her best known work, The Mountaintop. Born and raised by a factory worker and phlebotomist, Katori was the youngest of the Hall family's four children. From a young age, Hall acted in plays in the family's living room and absorbed the vivid stories her mother told about her life growing up in Memphis in the days of the civil rights movement.
Hall's career in the theatre didn't truly begin until her third year at Columbia University when an acting course swerved her from journalism into playwriting. Through researching plays for a partnered acting assignment with another young African-American woman, Katori Hall was frustrated and disappointed to find no such plays in the existing American theatre canon and realized that she would have to write them. After graduating from Columbia in 2003 with a BA in African-American studies and creative writing, Hall went. on to receive an MFA in acting from American Repertory Theater's Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University in 2005. She then trained under playwrights Lynn Nottage and Christopher Durang at the Juilliard School's Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Program from 2007-2009. There, she began to write and develop a play about Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night, a play inspired by her mother's own story of regret over missing King's final speech.
THE MOUNTAINTOP By Katori Hall
Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, directed by Kenny Leon at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street, Manhattan.
The Mountaintop premiered at Theatre 503 in London, England in 2009, quickly transferring the next year to the West End's Trafalgar Square and bringing Katori Hall great acclaim with an Olivier Award for Best New Play and inclusion on the London Evening Star's shortlist for Most Promising Playwright.
In addition to being the first black woman to win the Olivier and seeing The Mountaintop transfer to Broadway before her 30th birthday, Hall has won many other awards in her career. Hall's other plays include Hoodoo Love (2007), Remembrance (2007), Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (2005),
WHADDABLOODCLOT!!! (2005), The Hope Well, and Pussy Valley (2012). She also writes essays for The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Essence, The New York Times, and a regular column,
"The Commercial Appeal," for Newsweek. She is currently a member of the Residency Five
at The Signature Theatre in New York City.
Director's Notes by Philip Akin
Most of the commentary on this play talks about stripping away the iconic to reveal the man beneath. And in one sense that is true. However, the Martin Luther King Jr. that we meet in this play is an imagined one and the deconstruction by Katori Hall is a flight of fancy.
But what does that mean?
For me, it means that the play is an imagining that opens the doors to many agendas, and we are left to bring ourselves and our beliefs to it. We all have a personal Martin but most of those Martins will clash with the one that Katori has created. And that clash is what interests me, for we sharpen our ideas on steel and granite and come out the better for it.
This Martin exhibits, as we all do to some extent, the attributes of both the Seven Virtues and the Seven Sins. And at the end of the journey we are left with the essence of this imagined man - an essence that is in some ways a reflection of the real man.
for when our day is done
like a warm
or bitter drink
what is left
Alana Hibbert (Camae) and Kevin Hanchard (Martin Luther King Jr.)
Kevin Hanchard as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Awful Grace of God by Bob Hetherington
The appeal of biographical plays such as The Mountaintop lies in the opportunity they afford an audience who admire historical characters to vicariously experience their presence. In April of 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers strike,
Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Americans hardly need a reminder of the iconic MLK: a national holiday and a new monument celebrate him; his name is constantly invoked in every imaginable political context. He remains a symbol of non-violence across the world and he is the only non-president to have a memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Katori Hall's audacious solution to the challenge of memorializing him in a play is to turn the Lorraine Motel into his Gethsemane. Arriving from delivering the magnificent address that would prove to be his last, he dispatches his disciples out into the rain to pick up cigarettes, while he sits alone on the shabby bedspread in Room 306. As in the New Testament account, focusing on personal anguish makes the hero intensely human, raising the narrative stakes considerably. Rather than showing the public figure, Hall chooses an imaginative focus on what King was like in private moments, in moments of doubt, facing an unrealized vision that had defined his life for decades.
Many of the events Hall references in the play are matters of record. When they talk about the sanitation workers strike that brought King to Memphis, everything, including its time frame, Larry Payne's death in the looting that accompanied King's original march, and the strikers' placards reading "I Am a Man," is historical. Other incidents mentioned - the woman who tried to kill King, the bomb threat on his plane, and the bombing of his home - also are authentic. Dr. King did give a speech at Riverside Church in New York, a year to the day before he was assassinated, denouncing the Vietnam War and it did bring him a great deal of condemnation from a country not ready to hear his message.
What had happened to King before he entered his motel room at the beginning of the play is also accurate. There was a raging storm that night and a tornado warning was in effect. Many attendees described the thunder and lightning that accompanied King's speech and the sheets of rain that poured from the sky. King almost did not speak at all that night. He was exhausted, but when Ralph Abernathy called him from Mason Temple and told him the crowd wanted him, not Abernathy as a surrogate, he relented. The speech King gave that night is considered one of his finest; those who witnessed it reported that even those not usually moved by his words, including newsmen and his inner circle, were moved to cheers and tears. Knowing what would follow makes this speech chillingly prescient.
Playwright Hall's mother, Carrie Mae Golden, had wanted to go and hear King deliver what would be his final speech, the one in which he proclaimed,
"I've been to the mountaintop." But Golden's mother, citing bomb threats, would not allow it. Golden, said Hall, "thought about running down the street or going out the window or whatever, but she decided to stay at home," a choice which remains a great regret in her life. Golden often told that story to her daughter, which, said Hall, "planted a seed in me so deep that when I got the skill and the desire and passion to write the story, I took it on," she told interviewer Alexis Soloski in American Theatre magazine. In the play, Carrie Mae transforms into the motel maid Camae, who helps him pass his last night on earth. In fiction, then, if not in life, Hall salves her mother's regret, granting a private audience and an uninterrupted hour with the great man Carrie Mae never got to see.
Last year, America commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and some of the news coverage focused on how Dallas struggles to this day with the suggestion that its highly charged conservative political climate was somehow responsible for President Kennedy's death. So Dallas sought to put its best image forward and mark the anniversary with a solemn and respectful observance at the well manicured Dealey Plaza. Perhaps one difference between Dallas and Memphis lies in the transformation of the scene of the crime, the Lorraine Motel, into the National Civil Rights Museum, a privately owned museum that was dedicated in 1991. The "King-Abernathy Suite," Room 306, is meticulously preserved as it was on April 4, 1968. It is the centrepiece of the impressive museum and one cannot help but replay the events of Ms Hall's play as one visits the eerily preserved room, which is viewed through a Plexiglas window that serves as both a window and a time machine. There is a permanent wreath on the balcony at the spot where King was standing when he was shot, and the cars in the parking lot below are replicas of those present on that historic day.
The museum behind the facade of the motel and its most famous Room 306 presents historical dioramas of the
Civil Rights Movement. As such the geography of the museum is identical to the arrangement of The Mountaintop - both surround the room with the rest of the Civil Rights Movement before it reaches its finish, in a way nothing in Dallas can replicate. If you know nothing about the Civil Rights Movement you cannot leave your visit to the Lorraine Motel without a crash course on where the struggle has been, and its subsequent progress. Katori Hall's visit to Room 306 works in much the same way.
In a world before blogs and tweets, Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy found himself in the awkward, yet history-making position of having to break the news of Dr. King's death to a predominantly African-American crowd in Indiana at a campaign stop. Just two months ahead of his own assassination, Kennedy famously said to the assembled audience: "My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
"Wisdom through the awful grace of God" is an amazing turn of phrase, one that not only subverts an idea, but also an emotion.
Katori Hall's play, and the man it chronicles, shows us how powerful movements for justice and peace can arise from the suffering of those who choose to face it with dignity. That is the historic backdrop for the reminder of a very personal truth. The words of Aeschylus haunt and heal and speak to us today with penetrating insight into the nature of our common humanity. Similarly, Katori Hall's remarkable play asks us to learn the price of citizenship and to bear witness.
Bob Hetherington is professor of theatre and dance and Presidential Fellow at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. He assisted Tadeusz Bradecki on Happy End (2005) and is a two-time Guthrie Award recipient for work at the Stratford Festival. His most recent essay was for Guys and Dolls (2013).