The Mountaintop: The Last Night of Dr. Martin Luther King in a Memphis Hotel Room
Photo courtesy of Alley Theatre Joaquina Kalukango as Comae and Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in a shape shifter of a play
Check out our interview with director Robert O'Hara.
It is April 3, 1968, the night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated, and Dr. King is staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. An attractive black maid brings him coffee, and they discuss a variety of topics. There is more, a lot more, as the young black playwright Katori Hall serves up a chameleon of a play, a shape-shifter, changing not only its color but its very identity. Perhaps most surprisingly, the play is primarily a romantic comedy.
The maid, Comae, is feisty, quick-witted, attractive, and "built". The last adjective is not a case of male chauvinism objectifying a woman, but highly relevant - the FBI had tapped Dr. King's phone calls and released tapes suggesting he was a lusty womanizer. With that public knowledge, the situation is suggestive, and the interchange and especially the body language of the characters become a pas de deux, as we wonder: will they get it on?
Cigarettes are smoked, and shared, drinks are consumed, and shared, Comae starts to leave several times but never does (a standard device in plays with just two characters), and a connection develops between Dr. King and Comae. This section, the first half of the intermission-less play, is very funny indeed. Dr. King is portrayed as more of an everyman than an heroic, epic figure, and the result predictably is to reduce his stature. Since Comae has all the best lines, she is more interesting than he, and as I began to wonder what was up, with this curious balance, the question was answered in a most surprising fashion.
Playwright Hall, having demonstrated a capacity for naturalistic comic dialogue, even though one-sided, suddenly shifts gears and moves us into the arena of magic realism. The segue is handled smoothly, aided by sound effects and some striking lighting, and I happily went along with it - the precise nature of what happened will not be revealed by me, but the play becomes a drama of desperation. To her eternal credit, even here Hall cannot help herself, and provides some simply wonderful laugh lines. Brava!
The third section was the least satisfactory, an epilogue involving video montages, and skirting the shoals of moralizing, and the play might be stronger without it. Comae is played by Joaquina Kalukango and she is brilliant, with a commanding stage presence, an easy poise, great timing in delivering lines, and she even makes slouching in a chair mesmerizing. It's hard to see how the role could be played better. Bowman Wright portrays Dr. King and is excellent. That we see just the human side and not the heroic capacity is due to the playwright, not the actor.
The set is the interior of room 306, where Dr. King stayed when in Memphis, and the interior has the mundane sameness that motel rooms have, while the exterior matches the actual Lorraine motel, including its color, its balcony and metal railings, thanks to designer Clint Ramos. Some special lighting effects by Japhy Weideman are both fascinating and beautiful, and highly effective in making the sudden dramatic change in tone palatable. The play is directed by Robert O'Hara, and he is skillful in generating action within the confines of a motel room and just two characters. Playwright Katori Hall here reveals a rare comic gift for dialogue, and shows the courage of a lioness in breaking theatrical traditions, and succeeding. The Mountaintop was first produced in London and received the Olivier award as Best New Play.
Two skilled actors keep interest alive and treat the audience first to humorous banter, and then to highly-charged drama as the situation turns serious, resulting in a strange hybrid of a play, but one which succeeds in both of its endeavors.
The Mountaintop continues through February 3, at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas St. For information or ticketing, call 713-220-5700 or visit the theater's website.