Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 39 years of age when he startlingly passed away on April 4, 1968 due to the hateful actions of James Earl Ray, who shot the Baptist minister and civil rights hero while he was on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
King’s death was a shock that still resonates with many today in the United States (as well as the world at large), who continue to mourn and celebrate the man, who did so much for the disenfranchised, on the third Monday of every January. As informed citizens, we strive to learn as much from King’s teachings as we can, even more than fifty years later, but we can only extrapolate from video footage and recordings what he might have really been like.
In fact, fewer and fewer can actually say they had the privilege of attending one of MLK’s earth-moving sermons, which communicated the weight of his transformative words with both an elegance and a thunderous resolve. And then there were those who wanted to attend – to see King in person and in his element – but couldn’t due to reasons mostly outside their control. This was the case with playwright Katori Hall’s mother, nicknamed Camae, who at the age of 15 had the chance to witness King give a speech on the eve of his death at Memphis’ Mason Temple, but was implored not to do so by her mother (Hall’s grandmother). The reason cited was Camae’s safety, which, in retrospect, was not at all ill-founded.
Nevertheless, this personal story became the inspiration for Hall’s electric play, “The Mountaintop,” which debuted in London in 2009 and will run at Burbank’s Garry Marshall Theatre through March 10th. Directed with a terrific purposefulness by Gregg T. Daniel, the narrative takes place on Wednesday, April, 3rd, exclusively in Room #306 of the Lorraine Motel. It is characterized by a natural symbiosis between the reality that encapsulated King and a fantasy that produces an invigorating calm in the observer, who discerns King not only humanized even more, but is reminded that the unity he sought was absolutely achieved in the shared admiration for him. That fantasy, rooted in a what-if scenario, is represented by Hall’s mother, Camae, who in this depiction is not just merely in the vicinity; she is a maid of the motel who befriends King.
What follows next answers questions pertaining to why Camae enters the picture, and takes into account the true story of a preacher, who, based on the words of his last speech amid an ominous storm, knew his time on Earth was limited. Certainly, King was undeterred in his staunch support of the Memphis sanitation workers, who had gone on strike due to abject working conditions. He also maintained the importance of his fellow men and women rising out of the doldrums of poverty. And, as an academically trained theologian, he continued to deliver his impassioned pleas, fueled by the power of his prose, striking a palpable call to action in his listeners.
However, he knew that something was amiss as the bomb and death threats became more strident, the most recent one being the morning of April 3rd when his flight from Atlanta was delayed. King had additionally described escaping death by way of a knife attack a decade prior, but with the stakes exponentially raised, and with his pro-Vietnam-war enemies growing in number (even in the press), he had no illusions about his life potentially being cut short. Despite that, he could and would not falter in his courage, remarking that he was ready for anything because he’d already “been to the Mountaintop.”
Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” is a personal portrait of the social-activist legend – actualized by a powerhouse performance from Gilbert Glenn Brown – whose human imperfections are on display when he arrives unassumingly to the motel after his last speech, clad in suit and tie and with weary feet and a slight cold. He is brainstorming his next speech and waiting for his friend and mentor, Ralph Abernathy, to bring him some Pall Mall cigarettes. Upon ordering a cup of coffee via room service, Camae the maid – portrayed by the wonderfully talented Carolyn Ratteray – comes to King’s room in her blue dress uniform.
Being that this only a two-person play, on one of the most important individuals of the last 100 years, puts much pressure on Brown and Ratteray, who deliver in spades, with a chemistry that is very funny, passionate, and heartfelt. As their respective characters, they exchange ideas, opinions, and enjoy a back-and-forth repartee that is incredibly enjoyable. As King, Gilbert Glenn Brown gives everything he has, covering much emotional ground, in that one moment he is indisputably charming, the next he is resoundingly spirited, and then he is unafraid to be vulnerable. In this play, King is not relegated to his larger-than-life image; he is accessible to our mind’s eye as a person who, despite his flaws, embraced the accountability of his role in the Civil Rights Movement while trying to be a good family man. Hall’s writing, Daniel’s vision, and Brown’s above-and-beyond commitment effectively convey these sentiments.
In doing her part, Carolyn Ratteray ensures that her Camae brings the best out of Brown’s King. Her persona is vivacious, very direct, highly well-spoken, witty, and refreshingly unfiltered. In many ways, Camae is an equal to King, and it’s almost hypnotizing to see how their interaction unfolds. In addition, Ratteray’s charisma is unmistakable and lends itself to much amiability to offset much of the seriousness and pathos in the production. At the same time, whenever appropriate, Ratteray offers a palpable earnestness to her character that complements a stellar comic timing.
Throughout the 90-minute show, it becomes apparent that Alex M. Calle’s scenic design of Room #306 is so immersive that the audience feels particularly connected as if they are seated right there in the modest setting, which features an untidy queen-size bed in the middle, timeworn beige carpet, and a small TV set in the corner. JM Montecalvo’s lighting superbly frames the two performers (dressed convincingly in Wendell C. Carmichael’s costume choices), accenting the mood when need be, oftentimes spiked by currents of lightening. Robert Arturo Ramirez’s sound design is clear and resonant, and sometimes foreboding with jump-in-your-seat claps of thunder, which add a layer of suspense to the unpredictable story.
Overall, if you thought you knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., think again. While Katori Hall’s script takes several fictional liberties, marked by imaginative storytelling, they are carried out with a finesse and sensitivity to honor a man whose legacy will never be forgotten. In “The Mountaintop,” we catch a glimmer of King through a lens that not only captures some of his frailties, but his hopes and dreams, within a context of friendship, understanding, and a greater temporal scope. As incalculably grand as King’s image is, we can at least learn from him that we’re not alone in our responsibility to each other in making the world a better place than when we first entered it.
For more information about Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” please visit GarryMarshallTheatre.org