Controversial 'Mountaintop' opens at Circuit Playhouse

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Lawrence Blackwell) has  a conversation with a Lorraine Motel maid (Detra Payne) that takes some unexpected turns in "The Mountaintop."
Courtesy of Playhouse on the Square

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Lawrence Blackwell) has a conversation with a Lorraine Motel maid (Detra Payne) that takes some unexpected turns in "The Mountaintop." Courtesy of Playhouse on the Square

'The Mountaintop'

Performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 10 at Circuit Playhouse, 51 S. Cooper. All opening-weekend (through Sunday) tickets $22; otherwise, $35 for Fridays-Saturdays, $30 for Thursdays and Sundays, $22 for senior citizens, students, military; $10 for children under age 18. Adult language advisory. Call 901-726-4656. playhouseonthesquare.org

A tour of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis culminates at what has become a hallowed spot in the story of civil rights. As visitors walk through the shell of the former Lorraine Motel, they end up peering through a window into room 306.

Here is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his last hours on April 4, 1968.

Not many people get to enter the room, which has been staged to look like it looked on the day of his assassination. But the museum has made a few exceptions for artists looking to tell King's story.

Tony Horne is one of them.

"It is surreal going into the room," he says. "You're so used to peeping in with your hands up on the glass. But when you're in there, it feels like sacred space, a place you shouldn't be in."

Horne is directing the local premiere of the play "The Mountaintop," a co-production of Hattiloo Theatre and Circuit Playhouse. Written by native Memphian Katori Hall, her play opened in London in 2009 and won the Olivier Award for best drama. Last year's Broadway production starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

Hall's play generated controversy for showing King in a more casual light, humanizing a man of now-legendary stature.

"Knowing my city, I think the play is very controversial," Horne said. "But I think it will be divided between people who were alive when he died and people who were born later. We are looking at Dr. King as an ordinary man. He has fears. He is lonely. He is funny. He's a regular guy. And that's the thing that some older theatergoers might not like right away."

Horne was age 6 in 1968. He says he doesn't remember the tragic day itself, though he does recall his parents attending a later march.

Hall, 31, was born in Memphis and was a journalism intern at The Commercial Appeal a decade ago before moving to New York to explore dramatic writing.

Her play opens shortly after King finished his famous "Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple, where he delivered the prophetic lines:

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. 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."

When a maid shows up in his room with a cup of coffee, King, in a state of both exhaustion and anxiety, strikes up a conversation that takes some unexpected turns.

Horne says the play should affect viewers on a personal level.

"King always knew that he was a target," Horne says. "He knew there was a possibility that something bad could happen to him. This play challenges us to open our hearts to the people who make the ultimate sacrifice for a cause."

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