LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an iconic figure that he often seems more like a great legend than a great man. It’s easy to forget, and right for us to remember, that his statements and actions centered on the need to acknowledge and embrace our shared humanity.
Memphis native Katori Hall understands that point well and proves it through her extraordinary play The Mountaintop. The one-act was a smash in London, where it won the Olivier Award for Best Play. It had a successful Broadway run with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett and has been justly heralded for its thought-provoking ideas and imaginative fire.
Now the play is running at Actors Theatre of Louisville under the superb and sure-handed direction of the insightful Giovanna Sardelli. In every aspect ATL’s production spectacularly scales Hall’s impressive artistic mountaintop. It’s a pleasure and privilege to watch and hear the efforts of artists and artisans that rank among the best American theater has to offer; the play also provides a profoundly moving reminder that social justice for all should be a staple of our communities and our lives.
The drama is set in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968. King was fatally shot on the balcony outside that room the next day, and the play steers us toward that terrible event. But The Mountaintop presents us not with the King of legend but with a man (played by Larry Powell) that among other things has a stammer, smooth lines for the ladies, smokes too much and is scared of sounds made by thunder and fireworks (understandably similar to the sounds made by gunfire).
When King orders a late-night coffee it’s brought to him by a housemaid named Camae (which also is the name of Hall’s mother, and is played at ATL by Dominique Morisseau, who Hall is said to have thought of as she wrote the play). Camae isn’t afraid to speak her mind to “Preacher King,” as she calls him, and as the evening progresses King realizes his new acquaintance is much more than a hotel employee. (To go further would spoil one of the most inventive twists I’ve ever witnessed in a play so I’ll stop the description there.)
Hall’s play works because she builds a powerful fantasy with the historical tools her subject provides. For art as realities we have documentaries, but for art as possibilities we have theaters – and the possibilities are ultimately hopeful in this piece despite the daunting challenges addressed by the characters in The Mountaintop (and humankind as well). There’s plenty of humor in the script too, but it doesn’t shy away from the darkness that human conflict creates:
Camae: Make you scared to bring a Negro child into this world the way they be blowin’ ’em up.
King: Yes, Camae! They hate so easily, and we love too much.
Camae: Last time I heard you was preachin’ “everybody the same.” Negro folk. White folk. We all alike.
King: Well, at the most human level we are all the same.
Camae: What one thing we all got in common?
Beat. He searches hard to come up with an answer.
King: We scared, Camae. We all scared. Scared of each other. Scared of ourselves. They just scared. Scared of losin’ somethin’ that they’ve known their whole lives. Fear makes us all human. We all need the same basic things. …
The actors in this 90-minute two-hander are perfectly cast and deliver wonderful performances. Powell avoids inappropriate and distracting impersonations of King’s voice or mannerisms; he rightfully summons the spirit and essence of the civil rights leader’s thoughts, hopes and exhortations. And he does that while powerfully presenting a very human portrait of a man who has largely become myth to the masses since his assassination 45 years ago; that’s so important, for it is far more impressive – and far more relevant to us all – that the entity that encouraged us to judge others not by the color of their skin but the content of their character was not a perfect immortal but an imperfect mortal like us.
Morisseau – like Powell – is certainly a physically striking person, and that works well within the context of this story. She commands our attention, though, because of the intelligence and focus she obviously possesses. There’s not a wasted move, gesture or vocal inflection in her portrayal; she manages the difficult balance of being mesmerizing while never stealing focus from her colleague or the story when Hall’s script calls for that focus to fall on them. And Morisseau’s clear and compelling choices create a characterization devoid of visible artifice – onstage she is completely, and triumphantly, Camae.
Scenic designer Andrew Boyce has fashioned an incredible set that precisely echoes the actual hotel (I’ve been to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and Boyce’s attention to detail is impeccable, from the furniture, carpeting and accessories in the room to the motel’s sign that’s also represented onstage). Amy Clark’s costumes are spot-on as well, and the lighting design provided by Lap Chi Chu brilliantly illuminates the play’s real and fantastical elements. Kudos to Philip Allgeier for his gripping media as well as Anthony Mattana for high-quality sound design and original music.
Ultimately the energy created by all involved propels this production of The Mountaintop to the stars and beyond. It also inspires us to take its humanity and ideals away from Pamela Brown Auditorium and out into the world.
Actors Theatre of Louisville’s production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop directed by Giovanna Sardelli continues through Oct. 27 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium at ATL (316 W. Main St. in Louisville). Tickets ($24-$51) are available by calling the ATL box office at (502) 584-1205 or 1-800-4ATL-TIX; click here to buy tickets or gather more information from the ATL website. Special events connected with the production include a Community Conversation about the play and the civil rights movement that includes panelists Carla F. Wallace, co-convener of Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice as well as Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and is moderated by Emmy Award-winning journalist Jean West Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. ($20 for tickets to a pre-show reception, the performance and post-show conversation); a post-show Conversation with the Artists led by ATL artistic staff is free following the 2:30 p.m. performance Oct. 20.
*Photos by Bill Brymer of Dominique Morisseau and Larry Powell in The Mountaintop courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.