THE MOUNTAINTOPby Katori Hall
Dallas Theater Center
Director – Akin Babatunde
Scenic Design – Bob Lavallee
Lighting Design – Alan C. Edwards
Costume Design – Claudia Stephens
Sound Design – David Lanza
Hair and Makeup Design – David Bova
Projection Design – Chase York
Martin Luther King Jr. – Hassan El-Amin
Camae – Tiana Kaye Johnson
Photos by Karen Almond
Reviewed Performance: 9/26/2015
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
-From Dr. King’s speech on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, aged 39, was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The play takes place in his room at that motel on the evening before his death.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
How does one present a believably human story about a historical character who, even in his lifetime, had already taken on mythic qualities in the minds of many. Do we really want a candid portrait, “stanky feet” and all? The Mountaintop gives us the opportunity to not only admire Dr. King, but to view the ordinary man who chose to live an extraordinary life “in spite of.”
The play by Katori Hall premiered in 2009 at Theatre 503 in London and then transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in the west End garnering nominations and awards for its actors and winning the Olivier Best New Play Award for its script. The Mountaintop premiered on Broadway in 2011 starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. While it was not the success in New York it had been in England, it has gone on to be produced many times in the U.S.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
In her play, Ms. Hall gives us not only the historical (mythical?) MLK, but also shows us the very human side with both humor and pathos (indeed Dr. King’s first action is to enter the on-stage bathroom and proceed to urinate.) The fine production at the Dallas Theater Center presents us with the character of Dr. King as written by Ms. Hall, in a context that asks us to question our perceptions and expectations and approach this enormous figure with fresh eyes.
In the lobby of the 6th floor studio theater at the Wyly is a slide show of the events surrounding Dr. King’s life, including photos of the Lorraine Motel and the specific room he occupied. Scenic Designer Bob Lavallee has essentially recreated motel room 305 on stage for us in shades of beige, complete in every detail, including rain outside, a black phone, furniture and lamps that set the period, and yet, somehow, there is a feeling of mystery and ominous possibility. The set has tricks of its own (that I won’t give away) that play to great effect as the evening progresses. It is thanks to Mr. Lavallee’s artistically designed and skillfully constructed environment that the set becomes as much a character in the story as a background for the action.
In this recreation of motel room 305 we find Martin Luther King, Jr, the man, working on another speech and waiting on Ralph Abernathy to bring him some Pall Mall cigarettes, all the while wincing at every thunder clap and lightning flash. Calling Room Service for coffee, he is surprised by the almost immediate appearance of a young woman, Camae, bearing not only his coffee but her own pack of Pall Malls, all accompanied by a smart and a sassy attitude he finds very attractive. Of course she’s bringing much more than that, but we only gradually come to realize what that might be.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Hassan El-Amin plays Martin Luther King, Jr with the confidence and full embodiment that speaks volumes about his past experience as a performer. His is not so much an impersonation as it is a synthesis of what we know of MLK from TV, film and newspaper. Certainly there are times when he sings the familiar MLK cadences with his speech and it is thrilling, but there is also the depth of understanding he brings to the character’s life lived in the crosshairs and amid the constant derision of certain parts of the population combined with the adoration of other segments. His portrayal shows us the seriousness of the life lived “in spite of” and the strength and courage that it takes. He does it with his physicalization, the timbre of his voice and his relationship with Camae. It is a strong and confident performance, giving us both the legend and the human side of this remarkable man. From the small lies he tells his wife on the phone, to his final long speech, this is a powerhouse performance of skilled vocal and emotional theater, showing us the man, who as Ms. Hall said in an interview, “in spite of having his home bombed, his phones bugged, his leadership challenged, his life threatened…fought through his fears, and kept going.”
Camae, played by Tiana Kaye Johnson, is a complex character who at first seems simple and easily identified. As the story progresses, however, Ms. Johnson shows us more and more layers through vocal energy changes, posture and her proximity to the character of Dr. King combined with perceptive sharp looks and reactions that morph into compassion. What first seems a rather flighty and stereotypical young woman soon becomes something much more interesting through Ms. Johnson’s skilled use of her talents. Her “sermon” atop a bed mid-way through the play is a delight, one that rightfully brought forth applause from the opening night audience at its conclusion. Hers is not an easy role, but Ms. Johnson, despite her relative youth and lesser stage experience, holds her own easily with the veteran Mr. El-Amin. Together they create sparks and connection that is a pleasure to watch.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ “
Lighting by Alan C. Edwards is subtle and naturalistic when it needs to be, skillfully highlighting the moments in the story, often changing within the scene to underscore the action and revelations happening on stage. Bold when needed, Mr. Edwards’ lighting design supports and enhances this complex tale. Sound design by David Lanza is used throughout to create atmosphere, provide punctuation and paint aural images that fill in the background of the story. From the radio simulation before the show to the constant rain and truly terrifying claps of thunder, I can’t imagine the play without this skilled soundtrack.
Costumes by Claudia Stephens and Hair and makeup by David Bova set the period and help the actors in their characterizations by being correct, yet unobtrusive. Ms. Johnson’s costume does the tricks it must effortlessly. Projections by Chase York are spectacularly effective.
Mr. Babtunde’s direction is especially sensitive to the beats of the story, giving his actors time to breathe and react when needed and subtly guiding the audience on its journey through this maze of myth and humanity. Thanks to his direction, the story builds steadily, each clearly defined moment building on the last. He moves his actors frequently, keeping the visuals of the story strong and even with only two actors, the focus is clearly where it should be.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
The production is filled with unexpected humor, and there are revelations about the characters and situation as the story progresses that I won’t divulge, as well as visual treats that are better experienced than read about.
The script is perhaps a little too wordy at times and goes on a little too long, and may be a bit shocking in its language and actions for some, but its impact can’t be denied. Ben Brantley of The New York Times said in his review of the Broadway production, “Though it considers a watershed act of violence in American history, this is at heart a comfort play, a nursery room fable for grown-ups that seeks to reconcile us with a tragedy that tore the fabric of a nation.”
We hold certain individuals to higher standards, it’s true, but can we allow the human to exist inside the icon, or are we too needy for the image of some flawless being who will take us to that mountaintop and show us a better world? This production currently playing at the Dallas Theater Center, gives us the opportunity to face these questions while being strongly entertained, moved and challenged.
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”
All quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Dallas Theater Center
Wyly Theater, Studio Theater, 2400 Flora St, Dallas, TX 75201
Runs through November 15th 2015
Tickets: $18.00 - $102.00 subject to change. Tues, Wed and Thurs at 7:30pm. Fri and Sat at 8:00pm
Sat and Sun at 2:00pm. Sun at 7:30pm For tickets and information go to www.dallastheatercenter.org or call 214-880-0202