Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” is a fictionalized version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth.
With the subject matter and two meaty roles, it’s a good fit for the University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program, and they’ve staged a solid and well-timed production that continues this weekend.
Since “The Mountaintop” debuted in 2009, it has enjoyed a robust life. It’s a wonderful script, a two-person show, where Dr. King (Xavier Harris) and Camae (LaShondra Hood), a maid at the Lorraine Motel, spend an evening discussing King’s plans for the future.
It avoids getting bogged down by big questions about race or U.S. politics until after it has built King and Camae into characters who can address social issues through the human lens of their experience.
Saints don’t make great characters, and too often we are unwilling to look at our heroes’ flaws. Thankfully King’s extramarital affairs aren’t glossed over in Hall’s script. Moments after Camae enters, she bends over to put a cup of coffee onto a table, and King gives her a lecherous once-over. It a clear statement that this Dr. King has feet of clay. Stinky feet of clay, as we learn.
Harris has a tough job in front of him, standing in for perhaps the most iconic orator of the 20th century. Taking his cue from the script, Harris makes no attempt to compete with King. He isn’t playing an icon, he’s just playing a Southern preacher with charisma, charm and fears about the future.
I’ve seen Harris in several productions at UofL and appreciated his talent, and “The Mountaintop” allows him the opportunity to show the audience that he’s leveled up.
Camae is a perfect foil for King, and Hood gives her the life she needs — laidback and snarky. Without spoiling too much, I can say that Camae is more than she seems, and her true motivations for speaking with King afford Hood the opportunity to present a complex character arc. She’s a confessor, a blue-collar woman, a coquette and, as it turns out, a fiery orator.
A good connection is essential in a two-person show, and Hood and Harris have solid chemistry, which we can see whether they’re flirting or philosophizing.
Director Johnny Jones leads the cast with a sure hand. The set is limited to one hotel room, but Jones never lets the action settle for too long. He also has let Hood and Harris highlight the comedy in the script, which provides much-needed moments that break the tension.
The only downside to the evening was that despite there being extensive use of projection, I was unable to see it from my seat at the extreme edge of the audience. UofL should consider closing those seats off for shows that use heavy projection, or even just have really nice backdrops.
Before his death, King certainly knew he was being targeted, even talking about it in his last speech that people often refer to as “The Mountaintop.”
The martyr savior mythos is strong in our society, and the history of Dr. King makes it quite easy to fit the preacher with a symbolic crown of thorns. That parallel is made even more explicit in “The Mountaintop,” and the action of the play serves as a Garden of Gethsemane moment for King.
He’s afraid. He knows what’s coming for him, and he wants it to stop.
April 4, 2018, marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. There were tributes, articles, celebrations of his life and renewed mourning over his assassination.
“The Mountaintop” presents an opportunity to interact with King in a way that feels tangible and human in scale. It’s a much-needed opportunity to contemplate what we have lost and what we have gained, and consider how much further we have to go before we reach the promised land King was able to glimpse from the mountaintop.
“The Mountaintop” continues Sept. 27-30 at UofL’s Thrust Theatre, 2314 S. Floyd St. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27-29, and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30. Tickets start at $15.