Powerful preacher-man. Devoted father and husband. Civil rights activist. Flirt and bon vivant? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wore many different hats during his brief sojourn among men, but most prominently as the no-nonsense pioneer who is credited with doing more to advance the work of the Sixties civil rights movement in America than any other contemporary. But who was the MLK we didn’t know? What were his vices and weaknesses? What made him laugh?
In her groundbreaking play The Mountaintop, which created waves and drew lavish critical praise when it opened on Broadway a few years ago, Katori Hall reimagines Dr. King’s final night – spent in Room 306 (in the company of a maid) at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis – exploring the fears and foibles, charms and convictions of the great leader on the eve of his assassination.
Of course, Hall’s script creatively blends fact with fiction, but what emerges is an intriguing portrait of a man who loved women and loved a good cigar but, above all, was fiercely committed to his family and to ending the human rights abuses and other injustices facing Americans, especially poor Blacks.
Adapted by actor/producer Shayne Powell and prolific playwright-turned-director Patrick Brown for the Jamaican stage, the play comes in for a ferociously acted and pulse-pounding revival at the Theatre Place in New Kingston, with Alwyn Scott raising the roof with fiery rhetoric as MLK and Shantol Jackson burning a hole in the stage as the sassy maid Camae, who loved her some Preacher Kang!
We know how his story ends and the pandemonium that ensued in the wake of his murder, but what Katori Hall’s play drives home is the fact that MLK is best regarded as a messenger, a forerunner who got the ball rolling. A ball that became something like an avalanche gaining momentum that has led all the way to the Obama era we are now witnessing.
Thanks to Hall’s vivid creative imagination, you leave the theatre with a newfound respect for Dr. King and his vision, but you also get to see that he was a flesh-and-blood human being like the rest of us – a man with needs to satisfy, temptations to overcome and real life-and-death battles to fight.
Scott gives a fantastic performance walking in his shoes and couldn’t have asked for a more competent, confident sidekick than the young Miss Jackson, who impressively holds her own with the veteran leading man.
For any two-hander to work, both performers have to bring their A game to the party. That said, Brown hit the jackpot with Scott and Jackson, who admirably stay up on the tightrope (an hour and 40 minutes, no intermission), even when the story takes some head-scratching turns.
Meanwhile, musical interludes would have enhanced some of the more emotional scenes, but kudos are due for the apt lighting, the sensible set design and sturdy sound effects that convincingly orchestrated the thunderstorm drenching the hotel outside and the emotional maelstrom playing out in Room 306.
Splendidly written and brilliantly acted, The Mountaintop is simply must-see theatre. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+