Going to ‘The Mountaintop’ and not quite summitting

Got up to the fair city of Fairburn on Sunday to catch the final performance of ‘The Mountaintop’, Katori Hall’s splendid imagining of the last night of the life of Martin Luther King Junior.

First let me say: I love this script, and many many thanks to the Southside Theatre Guild for taking it on, and bringing it to life down here on the southside. Why do I love it? First, it’s just a great, great concept. Since the show has closed I’m going to make myself free with the spoilers here.

Playwright Hall puts us at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968 – specifically, in room 306. The room that was known even then as the ‘King-Abernathy Suite’ because Memphis and the Lorraine were accustomed to the custom of these men. They’d come to Memphis, once again, to support striking sanitation workers in their fight for a higher wage, not knowing that history, tragedy actually, was about to be made on their balcony.

Hall gives us not just the night before but an imagined encounter with King’s own better and worse angels. We get the King the man, not the icon. He’s impatient, flawed. He curses, smokes. He’s got holes in his socks and his feet stink. He flirts, and we are reminded this imperfect man was both heroic and human.

But the best part of Hall’s script isn’t Dr. King – it’s the woman who plays opposite him in this two-hander. Hall gives us the character of Camae, who comes in as a hotel maid with a cup of coffee for King, but who leaves by play’s end as the Angel of Death with King’s soul. It’s an absolutely beautiful role and a brilliant conceit.

So. King flirts, Camae resists – but only so far. King speaks of his hopes for the future. Camae goads him on, to reveal his fears as well. He knows, at least on some level, he’s living on borrowed time. When he finally realizes just who this beautiful young woman is – and why she’s there, with him, on this night – Hall gives us layers of generational pain to build a foundation. His realization that he won’t be there to guide the movement is heartbreaking. Her story of rape and abuse – her path to Heaven itself – is more heartbreaking. Their mutual confessions will culminate in a visual orgy of photographic images as God the Mother allows Camae to give Dr. King a glimpse of the future he will not live to see, underscored by recitation of profound poetry. It too is truth, and heartbreaking:

And on and onTill the break of dawn…For the American song…We shall overcome…

And it is finally the genius of Hall that give King the last word, his own, as he leaves us with his last speech and reminds us of just what we lost that day in Memphis.

So. I love this script and I am in awe of Katori Hall’s talent. Did I love this production?

No. The set was fine. Lighting, costumes and props – all well done.

My issue is with the direction, credited to Daniel Moody. He let his actors wander – blocking was vague and unmotivated. I’m not saying this was an easy job. You’ve got two actors who never leave a hotel room. I’m still dissatisfied.

And to be frank, I felt shortchanged with the actors’ realizations of the roles. Sometimes its hard to say – is this a lack of direction, or the actors’ inability to find the moment, to fully inhabit the role.

I know the audience around me was satisfied – they gave the show a Standing O.

I wanted more – more clarity, better transitions, more restraint in important moments. Actors often forget that truth gets lost when emotional stakes get raised – or if you’d like the shorthand: Too much scenery was chewed.

Nonetheless, I was glad I went.