‘Mountaintop’ is King without that pedestal
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
He smokes. He cusses. He drinks. He comes on to a woman who isn’t his wife. But he also speaks in the inspirational voice of a Gandhi-esque leader who forced America to search its conscience over racial inequality and poverty. And then he cusses and smokes some more.
“I’m just a man!” implores the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” and it’s a statement that could serve as the subtitle of this heartfelt if wildly manipulative play, having its Washington premiere at Arena Stage. The formula for saints onstage or in film mandates instruction in how much they are like you and me -- although few martyrs spell out that intention so blatantly as Hall’s King.
Set on the eve of King’s assassination in April 1968 outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, “The Mountaintop” is informed by both the eternal sadness over the civil rights pioneer’s early death (at 39) and the enduring appreciation of his passion. So go ahead, have a tissue ready for the climactic moment when King apprehends that the work of his movement will have to go on without him, and he pleads with the universe for a fleeting glimpse of what the world beyond the spring of 1968 will look like.
How could that not be an imagined instant you’d want to preserve in drama? A clairvoyant minute seems the smallest and grandest of parting gifts to bestow on a man for whom no word carried more weight than “dream.” For that, you must commend Hall’s humane inclination, even though the manner in which she chooses to deliver it is such a cliche from sappier forms of drama that it diminishes all on the Kreeger stage that follows.
It will be left to you to discover the play-altering plot twist that turns an absorbing naturalistic encounter into a hokier episode of “The Twilight Zone.” (Let’s erase from our minds the arch phone call Camae puts through, into the Everlasting.) This is a shame, because there is a fair amount to recommend in this “Mountaintop,” starting with the down-to-earth portrayal of King by Bowman Wright, and with Joaquina Kalukango’s secure turn as Camae, the housekeeper who arrives at Room 306 with coffee and fresh towels and makes herself at home to flirt with, cajole, lecture, entertain and console the itchy King, in town to lead an injunction-defying rally of sanitation workers.
Director Robert O’Hara -- whose own plays “Antebellum” and “Bootycandy” were premiered by Woolly Mammoth Theatre -- proves a solid guide for Wright and Kalukango. Arena’s “Mountaintop,” a co-production with Houston’s Alley Theatre, is a more satisfactorily assembled version of the play than the starrier Broadway incarnation that featured a miscast Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett’s Camae showboating too obviously.
On Clint Ramos’s motel set -- authentically tacky down to the shabby pink bedspreads, and placed on a turntable to allow for scenes inside and out of the room -- King and Camae talk away on King’s last night on Earth. While the thunder that cracked regularly during director Kenny Leon’s Broadway production put audiences more effectively on edge, the more youthful energy of Kalukango and Wright is better matched than that of Jackson and Bassett. You get a more tragic sense now, of a man cut down in his prime. And in the heat between Arena’s actors, King’s ladies’-man reputation emerges as a more credible factor. If any tantalizing mystery exists in “The Mountaintop,” it’s in whether their conversation is a kind of foreplay.
Hall has a good ear for banter and an eye for the telling detail, as when Wright’s King reaches for the phone, not to make a call but to check for bugs. It’s when she reaches for sweeping effect that the play feels disappointingly minor. The projections devised by Jeff Sugg are technically impressive, the most complicated of them a stirringly composed digital march through contemporary American history.
The playwright by no means offers a sanitized portrait here, though it is a generous and forgiving one; she informs us at one point that King’s admirers extend far beyond the mortal realm. With the trimming of naughty words and other manifestations of King’s earthy proclivities, in fact, “The Mountaintop” might prove suitable for mounting at the site of his national memorial. It might even feel worthier at the granite knees of his likeness than it does in a theater.
PREVIEW: A gifted, young playwright unafraid to redeﬁne theater
By DeNeen L. Brown
Sunday, March 10, 2013
The toilet flushes, and “The Mountaintop” opens with an actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. taking a leak. King sits alone in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, waiting for his friend “Ralph” to bring him a pack of Pall Malls.
In this room with carpet the color of “bile,” he is not the King with the soaring rhetoric, the preacher man who professed he had been to the mountaintop.
On this last night before his assassination, King is portrayed by playwright Katori Hall as nothing more than ordinary -- a man who smokes, likes a little whiskey in his coffee and takes a call from “Mrs. King” while flirting with a hotel maid waiting near his bed.
Hall, a 31-year-old playwright who has burst onto the international theater scene, was not worried in the least about what people might say about portraying King not as an icon, but as a regular man, struggling with his last speech in a dank motel room.
“He had vulnerabilities and fears,” Hall says during a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, where she has just returned from a trip to Africa to research her next play. “This is a man that provided a fundamental shift in American society. King forced us to see people of color are not second-class citizens; they are equal. He did this extraordinary thing. But he wasn’t superhuman. He always said, ‘I’m a sinner. Not a saint.’ That is the King you will see in ‘Mountaintop.’ . . . It was important to see the humanity in this hero so we can see the hero in ourselves.”
When “The Mountaintop,” which opens at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater on March 29, premiered in London, critics called her fearless and audiences wondered was this daring young playwright was. The play won the 2010 Olivier Award, equivalent to the Tony, for best new play.
Robert O’Hara, who is directing “The Mountaintop” at Arena, said the rest of the world is just catching up to Hall, whose work includes these 2012 premieres: “Hurt Village,” which starred Tony-winner Tonya Pinkins at Signature Theatre in New York; “Children of Killers,” an examination of Rwandan genocide that opened its American premiere at Castillo Theatre in New York; and “WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!,” which was staged at Williamstown Theatre Festival and featured a well-heeled woman who wakes up one day to find that her crisp New England accent has turned into thick Jamaican patois.
“The recognition of ‘The Mountaintop’ allowed other people to look at her work,” O’Hara said. “She has been been writing all this time. Her mind writes very much in a no-holds-barred type of writing. She starts the play off with King smoking and peeing. If you don’t get up and leave by that time, you deserve what you get. She wanted him to be a real person. King indeed was a heavy smoker.”
Heroes, he said, carry the weight of the world. “Their burdens are great and their demons are large. But we don’t want to actually accept that our leaders have flaws.”
Hall, who grew up in Memphis, admits she is complicated, much like her characters. “I’m very Southern in the way I walk in the world,” she said. “I love to laugh. I love to eat. I love to hug people. But if somebody makes me mad, my neck may roll. I can be aggressive with a Southern twang.”
Her confidence, she said, might be “a little overwhelming to people who think a young woman should say ‘yes’ a lot and be meek. That is the antithesis of who I am. I’m very opinionated, very intelligent and not afraid to show that.”
Hall grew up staging plays in her living room. Her father worked for Kraft and her mother was a phlebotomist. “She took people’s blood,” Hall said. “We jokingly called her the vampire.”
Her mother was also skilled at storytelling. Hall and her four older sisters would gather around the table after the news and listen to their parents recount their day: “What the boss man said that day, or did or didn’t do. My parents would inhabit these people’s voices. It was like watching one-person shows at the kitchen table.”
In elementary school, Katori was admitted to a gifted program that exposed students to the arts. Every other month they would go on a field trip. She was about 10 when she first saw “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” at a Memphis playhouse.
“It was magical,” Hall recalled.
In 1999, Katori graduated from high school as valedictorian and won afull scholarship to Columbia University. An acting course changed her life: The teacher assigned students to research scenes with characters that looked like them.
“I had an acting partner, a young black woman, just like me, from the South,” Hall recalls. They searched but could find nothing. “When we came back to the teacher, we said, ‘The Columbia library does not have a play with two black women.’ ”
The teacher could not think of a play, either. At that moment, a thought popped into Katori’s mind: “I’m going to have to write those plays then.”
She graduated, then went to Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre, a graduate training program that includes a residency at the Moscow Art Theatre School. After graduating, she spent two years getting acting gigs in New York -- small parts in television’s “Law and Order” -- and worked in the communications department at XM radio. “Oprah would come in. Jay-Z and Beyonce. I was surrounded by people living their dreams.”
One day, she wrote “I am a writer” on a Post-It note and stuck it to her computer screen. She overheard her boss telling somebody that Hall should quit and just become a writer. “They would catch me working on plays at my desk,” Hall said. “They needed to fire me or I needed to quit.”
It would be a standoff.
The next week she received an admissions letter to the Juilliard School. “I had only one play, ‘Hoodoo Love,’ ” about a woman who escapes the cotton fields of Mississippi and travels to Memphis to pursue a dream of singing the blues. “Hoodoo Love” was produced in 2007. That same year, she began writing “The Mountaintop,” inspired by her mother’s stories of King.
As a young woman, her mother wanted to go to the Mason Temple to hear King speak in 1968, but bomb threats scared her. “When my mom told me that story, I thought, ‘If my mother was afraid to go to the church, then Dr. King must have been really afraid to go to the church.’ ”
Her mother always regretted not going. The maid character in “The Mountaintop” is based on her. “It was a way to put my mother in the room with King because I knew she didn’t get a chance on April 3, 1968.”
Hall says she “opened ‘The Mountaintop’ in England because the British ‘are used to cracking open the masks of their kings.’ ” After it won the Olivier, “The Mountaintop” premiered in 2011 on Broadway starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
Hall was still in her 20s. Her rise to Broadway, she said, was surreal. “I feel blessed,” she said. But the play has generated controversy, for -- as one critic wrote -- taking liberties with dialogue, which is not drawn from King’s speeches or writings. Hall says the play is a magical reimagining of what might have happened that night before his assassination. “I never, ever read the comments below an article on the Web. People are mean. I’m a human being,” Hall said.
She maintains a determination to write plays that interest her. “If you want a play with King on a pedestal, there is a play for you over there. If you want a sanitized version of black women, there is a play over there. I can’t please everybody.”
Halls says she doesn’t write to provoke. “Most of the time, when I’m writing, I’m writing for myself. I’m thinking, ‘What will my character say at this time? What will come out of her mouth?’ I create individuals so real to me, I sometimes start talking to them. Then I let them loose on the page.”