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At Trinity ‘The Mountaintop’ is a towering achievement

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Something astonishing and incredibly powerful happens at Trinity Rep every time the curtain goes up on Katori Hall’s transcendent play The Mountaintop. The production is about Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth, but it’s also about much more.

Filled with history, real and imagined, as well as quoted snatches of King’s inspired and passionate rhetoric in the cause of the civil rights movement, it holds the viewer rapt at the same time it risks its author’s credibility with a deep and soul-felt dive into magical realism. The result more than justifies the risk.

The story progresses in what feels like an inevitable step-by-step movement away from fact into a kind of outrageously bold and imaginative fantasy. The transformation is accomplished in such a compelling way that in the end the dream – King’s famous one and the playwright’s inspired vision of his transformation from leader to venerated cultural icon – towers over the mere facts of the martyred preacher’s life and tragic assassination.

On stage in the Sarah and Joseph Dowling, Jr. Theater, downstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence, the show opened Jan. 12. It is directed by Kent Gash and runs through Feb. 12.

King, exhausted by his battles for black rights and equality, is in Memphis on April 3, 1968 to support a strike by city sanitation workers, many of whom are black. Although he is only 39, he has been physically worn down by his crusades. Himself the victim of violence in his struggles against segregation and repression, he is, nonetheless, an unyielding advocate of non-violence for the movement. Ironically, he will die of a rifle shot the next day.

April 3rd is when he delivered his famous “mountaintop speech” which suggests a premonition of his own death before his goals can all be achieved.

“. . .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 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!”

Alone in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, aching for some rest, as the play opens all he wants are some Pall Mall cigarettes and a cup of coffee. He needs a chance to quiet his angst and somehow gear up for more confrontation tomorrow. The outwardly fearless champion of the oppressed is privately afraid and lonely.

Katori Hall has not written a script that glorifies MLK Jr. She has written one that shows the glory in his humanness. She doesn’t overlook his frailties, but looks past them to see his uncommon strengths.

Beset with anxiety and uncertainty as he wrestles with his fatigue and doubts, King is bemused by Camae, the motel maid who arrives with his coffee. Vulnerable, craving affirmation and reassurance, he begins to flirt with her. Initially, as convention would require, she resists him. However, she soon abandons her polite and demure posture and begins defying King, surprising him with her arguments, her profanity, and her vocabulary and verbal skills. She is not in awe of his position or his reputation. In fact, she shows no reluctance to scold him for his advances, and she challenges his attitudes and presumptions of authority.

It quickly becomes clear that Camae is something other than what she appears. As lightning and thunder periodically shake the room, there ensues a spell-binding, enthralling, sometimes obscenity-laced dialogue between the preacher-activist and the maid. In the course of the rapid fire exchanges she reveals that she knows much more about King than circumstances would suggest. At first, seeing that she is aware of his private life, he suspects she is a spy or is there to harm him, but she responds by proving she is an angel sent to bring him to the other side.

He is about to die. It is what he deeply fears, but he refuses to accept the news with resignation. He wants to fight for time to complete his work. He wants to live to see his objectives accomplished. So, improbable as it may sound, he asks Camae to connect him to God (a black woman) to argue his case. Camae relents and calls her on the motel room phone as he insists. Of course, Rev. King does not succeed in his demands to the deity, but his eloquent and angry pleas provide poignant insight into Hall’s view of his passion and purpose and his character.

There is more profound struggling with the inevitable, more moving testimony. There is furious debate between Camae and King. There is even a wild pillow fight, as well as a tender moment of embracing. However, no amount of synopsis or description can do sufficient justice to the hypnotic poetry of this play. Only by seeing it will the impact be truly understood and absorbed.

As the time for his death approaches, King, in an unmistakable parallel to Christ, says that he didn’t seek nor want the role that has been thrust upon him, and he asks to be released. It is his “take this cup from me” moment, yet, he also knows he must submit to his destiny.

Perhaps the most compelling part of this remarkable drama is the ending. King, realizing he cannot escape his fate, asks Camae if there is any way he can see what will happen after his death. She is able to grant his wish.

The final amazing minutes of The Mountaintop are devoted to a kaleidoscopic video and slide show of the salient moments and events of the last half century right up to including an image of the New York Times front page from the day of the opening. Indescribably moving and impactful, the reprise of history since April 4, 1968 left many in the audience weeping audibly. The long and sustained applause that followed felt like affirmation for King, the man, and King, the mythic figure he became. It also felt like stubborn hope for the America that it is still possible to imagine.

In the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Camae, Joe Wilson, Jr. and Mia Ellis are simply immense. Compelling, provocative, soulful, exceptional, uplifting, inspirational, riveting, magnetic, sympathetic, funny, resonating, engaging . . . choose your adjective, choose them all, add your own. These actors give the performance of a lifetime. Seeing this play should be one of the meaningful events of your lifetime.