Review: Review: King finally reaches the ‘Mountaintop’ in moving filmed play
Three San Diego theaters collaborated on the 2009 play about Martin Luther King Jr.'s final 24 hours
The day before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he gave a prescient speech at a Memphis church promising the congregation that civil rights progress would come one day, even if he wouldn’t live to see it himself.
It’s known as “The Mountaintop” speech, and it’s the inspiration for Katori Hall’s 2009 play of the same name, which is now streaming in a locally filmed new production that plays weekends through May 16. “The Mountaintop” was co-produced by three local companies — American History Theater, The Roustabouts Theatre Co. and Teenage Youth Performing Arts Theatre Co. (TYPA).
The play begins just after King’s speech, when he has checked into Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel for an overnight stay. He would die the next evening on the walkway just outside his motel room. King calls the front desk asking to have a cup of coffee sent to his room, and the “fussin’, cussin’and drinkin’” maid who arrives with his coffee rocks his world.
The maid, Camae, is a pretty young woman and a fan of the reverend. He’s instantly charmed by her insights, honesty and mild flirtatiousness. But the mysterious Camae isn’t what she seems. She arrives with the next day’s newspaper, she knows things about his past and his future that she shouldn’t and she has a seemingly endless supply of Pall Mall cigarettes in her near-empty pack. Camae says she’s simply a maid, “called” to her job and good at cleaning up other people’s messes.
But King suspects Camae is a spy, sent by the FBI to entrap him in an extramarital fling. The truth is much different. As the 90-minute play unfolds, King struggles with his motivations and the very real possibility that he may soon die for the the cause of social justice. Why, King begs, would God allow him to be cut down before his work is done? His struggle with temptation, doubt, faith and martyrdom mirrors the Biblical story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he was betrayed.
Kandace Crystal, artistic director of American History Theater, directs the production with confidence, honesty and a propulsive energy that keeps you riveted all the way to the moving and time-bending finale.
Caiel Noble is so powerful and heartbreaking in the role of King, it’s amazing to read in his program biography that “The Mountaintop” is his professional theater debut. He’s thoroughly believable as a near-broken man, so haunted by death threats that every peal of thunder outside the motel causes a panic attack.
Ashley Graham, who plays Camae, is also relatively new to San Diego theater. She’s a delight to watch in the mercurial role as she shocks, amuses and infuriates King with her curse words, whiskey bottle and unexpected revelations. The two actors have good chemistry, and they’re both fully invested in their roles.
The physical production is excellent. Reiko Huffman’s scenic design re-creates well the tatty motel where King spent his last night. Beonica Bullard’s costumes have the right period feel. Mashun Tucker’s lighting mixes reality with fantasy and Marc Akiyama’s sound design includes nerve-jangling thunder.
To say too much about “The Mountaintop” would spoil its surprises, but it does have a conclusion that perhaps King would have found satisfying. And the production’s timing — as the nation’s second great wave of Black civil rights protests nears its one-year anniversary — could not be better.
“The Mountaintop” is available for streaming on demand for specific dates only: May 1-2, 8-9 and 15-16. Tickets range from $25 to $100. To order, visit themountaintopsd.com.
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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