Plays about historical figures often portray their subjects as glorified symbols, but Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with fears and foibles, humor and hubris. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production offers engaging acting and vibrant directing in its full commitment to Hall’s surprising, shocking yet spiritual work.
In this fictionalized account, it’s April 3, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., the night before King’s assassination. He’s just come from delivering the sermon with the now-famous line, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” He’s tired but eager to work on another speech, ordering room service coffee while waiting for a friend to return with some cigarettes.
When Camae, a pretty young hotel maid, delivers the coffee, she recognizes King and boldly engages him in conversation. Soon she is sharing cigarettes and advice on his speeches, along with some flirtatious teasing. Attracted by her brash honesty and sassy joking, King soon is opening up about his disappointments and doubts and his constant apprehension of death.
Halfway through the 90-minute one-act, just as one begins to wonder where the relationship is headed, the script shifts into entirely new territory. It doesn’t spoil the twist to say that Camae is not quite what she seems and that the final moments include some theater-filling special effects.
Cedric Mays perceptively embodies King’s “regular guy” aspects, from angry profanity and little white lies to a healthy libido. Mays also knowingly projects King’s enjoyment of fame and his eye on how history will remember him. Lakisha May takes on the plum role of Camae with gusto, her comic timing and brassy characterization audience charming. Her high-pitched tone and sharp delivery sometimes obscures punch lines but she displays her full vocal range in several elaborately constructed monologs.
Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges keeps the energy level high, emphasizing humorous, down-to-earth situations within the more serious framework.
Xavier Pierce’s lighting and Robert Dagit’s sound design add appreciable atmosphere, especially the rainstorm effects. Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set design rings true to the period but it’s perspective, with one-third of the audience watching through a windowed wall, seems unnecessarily gimmicky.
Those seeking a textbook portrait of a great leader will not find it here, but those willing to go with Hall’s compelling premise and thought-provoking storyline shift should find the show entertaining and rewarding.