The Mountaintop hits the theatrical heights
The Mountaintop by Katori Hill was a powerful and philosophically profound theatrical experience. Mountaintop is a historical play about Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, which is influenced by the political and historical climate of nine years ago, during Barack Obama’s first administration. It now speaks to us perhaps even more powerfully than it did in 2009.
On Thursday evening, the stage of City Hall’s Earl Cameron Theatre was set up as a radio play stage, scattered with seven microphones on stands. Powerful, soundless images flicker, projected on a cinema-sized screen forming the backdrop.
They range from documentary historical footage of the Civil Rights Movement as well as of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King, brilliantly realised by Gilbert Glenn Brown, is trying to compose a sermon “Why America is going to Hell”.
He is on the telephone to room service, trying to obtain Pall Mall cigarettes. Instead, Camae, a timid, newly hired cleaning maid arrives, soaking wet, with a cup of coffee, bearing cigarettes, and a flask of whiskey.
We know that King never delivered his sermon, though we have his notes. We also expect the role of Camae to be completely eclipsed by King’s larger-than-life presence, his rhetorical, theological and historical stature.
But Karen Malina White’s Camae confounds all our expectations. She’s flirtatious, witty, worldly wise, a master of rhetoric and continually grows stronger and stronger until she equals or surpasses King in personality power. King tries to resist the temptation she represents but is increasingly drawn to her to confide his gnawing fears and doubts.
Camae puts on his shoes and jacket and delivers a scornfully brilliant parody of his nonviolent message, urging race war against whites. Horrified, King begins to doubt her motives but then it becomes obvious that she knows facts about him that are privy to only his family. She lights a cigarette for him with no lighter. It starts to snow.
He scents something of the sulphur of hell in her but instead she reveals that she is a heaven-sent angel to help him to the afterlife. She talks on the telephone to God, who is female and black, and passes the receiver to King who finds he has just seconds in which to justify his whole life to the Creator and explain why he needs to remain on earth to complete his work. The great rhetorician is for once lost for words, and the line is cut. Then we get to hear his last sermon on Earth, delivered brilliantly by Brown:
“… And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”
Quite rightly, the full Earl Cameron Theatre rose to applaud these wonderful performances.
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