If ever I attended an unfamiliar play hoping to be enraptured it was this one. The Mountaintop, American playwright Katori Hall’s 2009 play has all the elements needed to make that happen; a toweringly larger-than-life subject, a historic moment in time, and an interesting and novel concept. I was pulling for it. I wanted to love it. But I only liked it instead.
The Mountaintop imagines the evening of April 3, 1968 in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visiting Memphis in support of the Sanitation Workers’ strike has returned to the motel after delivering a speech at the Masonic Temple. Always a powerful speaker, Dr. King’s “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech was well received by the smaller-than-hoped-for crowd. Toward the end of the speech Dr. King alludes to the continuing threats on his life:
“…… I just want to do God’s will. And He’s 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
That may not be entirely true. In this play, as he returns to Room 306, Dr. King is afraid. He fears. He fears for the future of the movement to which he has committed his life. He fears his efforts are not succeeding. He fears the divisions within the movement caused by leaders with divergent strategies. And, yes, he fears for his life. There is a thunderstorm that night in Memphis and he hears thunder while listening for gunshots. As he walks in the door that evening he does not know that he will be assassinated outside Room 306 the next day but he has fear.
The only other character in the play is Camae, an attractive, vivacious and, ultimately surprising motel maid who delivers coffee to Dr. King’s room. She is brash and tactless and more than a little foul-mouthed. The interaction that ensues between the two forms both the structure and content of the play.
Ms. Hall has been quoted as saying she wanted to show Dr. King to be the flawed human being he was. She accomplished this by showing him to be very much like any man at the end of a long day in a motel. He is tired and a little irritable. He urinates (audibly but, happily, off stage. He smokes too much. He drinks. He has holes in socks and his feet smell. He lies to this wife about how well he is taking care of himself on the road and, with a nod to the reputation that followed him during his lifetime, he flirts with Camae.
Violating the civil right leader’s sacrosanct image has been controversial and, in some communities, unpopular. The apparent goal is affirmative. It is easier for the current generation of leaders to visualize themselves striving toward the future Dr. King pursued if they don’t view him as saint-like but, rather, as a good, but flawed man who, nonetheless, was able to make great strides toward a common goal. The struggle is a relay race. Dr. King has passed the baton and one need not be a saint to take the handoff. We cannot wait for another great man. We need good men to do great things.
Ultimately the playwright’s vision of that last night in Memphis is Dr. King’s moment of existential crisis. Room 306 is his personal Garden of Gethsemane. He doubts. He fears. And, ultimately, he is resigned.
The Mountaintop has an interesting history. Written by a young, African-American woman; the play premiered in London where it was a hit. It won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. A subsequent Broadway run was less well received. The producers indicated the play was not a financial loss but the critical reception was luke-warm and it was ignored at awards time. One reviewer suggested part of the reason may have been the NY production was simply over-produced for the intimate nature of the material. It starred Samuel L Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as Camae.
The end of the play is highly conceptual. It offers some hope of redemption while clearly showing how far we still have to go. In the end, I found the ending guardedly optimistic. That is probably all we can hope for from a play set on April 3, 1968. We know what happened on April 4th.