Stage Review: 'Mountaintop' salutes King, the man

'Mountaintop' upends pedestal of civil rights icon

Lawrence Blackwell is Martin Luther King, Jr. and Detra Payne is a Lorraine Motel maid in 'The Mountaintop,' by native Memphis playwright Katori Hall running through February 10 at Circuit Playhouse.

Photo by Chris Neely

Lawrence Blackwell is Martin Luther King, Jr. and Detra Payne is a Lorraine Motel maid in "The Mountaintop," by native Memphis playwright Katori Hall running through February 10 at Circuit Playhouse.

No American since Abraham Lincoln has been more completely transformed from man into legend than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

His name adorns streets and schools around the world. His birthday is a federal holiday. His colossal statue on the Washington Mall — a preacher among presidents — is a testament to his unassailable character.

Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall may have noticed the problem that arises when legends get too big to live up to: People actually stop living up to them. Their soulful ideals become academic abstractions; their dangerous and prophetic fire is reduced to a flickering "eternal flame."

The Mountaintop

Performances continue at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 10 at Circuit Playhouse, 51 South Cooper. Tickets: $35 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.

In a sense, the day King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, was the same day his likeness and his legacy got dipped in bronze, preserved in amber, frozen in time.

This, Hall tells us in her Olivier Award-winning play "The Mountaintop," is a mistake. History is not made of statues. It is made of flesh and blood.

Her illuminating and surprisingly cheeky script — seen at Circuit Playhouse in a co-production with Hattiloo Theatre — opens just hours before King's death, in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. King has just finished giving his famous "Mountaintop" speech, gravid with premonition on a stormy night, at Mason Temple in support of the Memphis sanitation workers strike.

Back in the motel room, King jumps with every thunderclap outside.

Paranoia is not something we associate with King, and this is just the beginning of Hall upending the icon's pedestal.

King then pulls out a legal pad and starts work on a new speech: "Why America is Going to Hell." The title signals a more

radical stance against the Vietnam War and against capitalism. How might King's legacy be remembered today had he lived to push a more progressive, socialistic agenda?

Hall asks us to consider the person making the history, not the history itself. And the image she presents of him — vulnerable, careworn and maybe just a little vain — looks more like an average man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He has stinky feet, smokes a lot of cigarettes, enjoys whiskey in his coffee, and uses swear words.

Oh, and he's not alone. King charms a hotel maid into spending time with him. The bubbly, beautiful Camae seems to be the perfect companion for a lonely activist.

Hall's script, liberally sprinkled with details of the civil rights movement and King's life, intricately captures a moment in time. That moment eventually comes with a wildly unexpected twist, but even that works to the same end: to re-humanize the myth.

Director Tony Horne helps by stripping his characters of pretense and asking the audience to step away from preconceived notions.

The tall, thin actor Lawrence Blackwell looks and speaks nothing like King. The lovely and voluptuous maid, played by a frisky Detra Payne, has energy and spark. She is, in fact, the guiding spirit of Hall's script, taking King on a journey toward surrender.

If the phrase "I AM a Man" means one thing to the lowly sanitation workers striving for recognition, it means the opposite from the mouth of Dr. King, who, in this play, argues for his own humanity. He's not a saint, but a man. Flawed, but well-intentioned.

This well-intended production may have its flaws as well, but if you can look past some of the obvious ones, you may find that the subject matter — unlike every other gloomy tribute to King — is very accessible, funny and, at times, deeply moving.

Hall's writing may raise eyebrows, but it does a good service. What made King great was not his death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It was his life — heroic, yes, but also human.

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