David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs
The posters for James Dacre’s production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop at Theatre 503 make explicit the link between the present and the past: for they are of the face of Martin Luther King Jr. depicted in the familiar campaign colours of Barack Obama.
Hall’s play is set in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It is 3rd April 1968, the last night of Dr King’s life.
He has just delivered his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple, he is tired and his throat is hoarse from talking. Outside, the rain lashes against the motel window. He sends his aide out for a packet of Pall Mall cigarettes and settles down to work on another speech.
A maid brings him a cup of room service coffee. She is new; this is her first day and she is elated to have been sent to see Preacher King. She is further delighted when he cadges a cigarette. They talk about his work, his world, the road he has chosen. She is of a more militant leaning and questions the necessity of his commitment to peaceful protest; fuck the white man, she bellows, when challenged to display her oratorical skills. King finds this shocking but also funny. He is also not immune to her physical charms, for she is, as she tells him, so pretty that even my uncle couldn’t resist.
Hall’s play is compelling and energetic – at least at the beginning. She successfully re-makes a man of this iconic figure through his chance casual encounter with a charismatic chamber maid. But then the play takes a sudden swerve the rules are changed. Without revealing too much of this unexpected twist, it is enough to say that King is made aware of the imminence of his death. He comes to know that this is his last night on earth and accepts this information almost unquestioningly.
While he accepts it, he does still try and escape his fate: he still has a lot of work to do; he is nowhere near finished. He needs more time. But he can do nothing to change what is to come. All he can do is take solace in the fact that his work will continue after his death and that some of his dreams will, eventually, come to pass; and that in four decades time, the American landscape will have changed to the point where it is possible for Obama to be elected President.
Hall’s play is an attempt to examine both King’s legacy and the man himself; to make the audience see him as just that: a man. And she achieves this, to a degree. King is holed up in a scruffy motel, checking the furniture for bugs (of the surveillance variety though given the grim brown and orange-dominated dcor of Libby Watson’s set, he would also be wise to be wary of the real thing), his feet are ripe from marching and he has neglected to pack a toothbrush. His flirtatious interactions with Camae the maid, a rare moment of relaxation, go further to making him human, flawed. He loves his wife, his family, but he has been known to stray.
But then there comes this strange, forced, supernatural twist (one that owes a hefty debt to Kevin Smith’s Dogma) and Dacre’s production immediately loses focus. Its grip on its audience slackens and it becomes a much limper thing. It begins as a play with much power and charm but becomes something else altogether, something awkward and even rather silly in places.
David Harewood is quite excellent as King. His performance combines the stirring voice of the born orator with more human worries and frailties. But despite his best efforts and the snappy rapport that builds between him and Lorraine Borroughs’ Camae, the play sabotages itself and that initial potency is lost, returning only for a few brief flickering seconds in the final montage.