History loves Martin Luther King, Jr.
In fact, history has created a sanitized, softened version of the civil rights leader in the 53 years since his assassination. So it usually works to make him the mouthpiece for an exhortation to work for racial justice — if you don’t want to make your audience very uncomfortable.
That’s exactly what Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” does. It’s running at American Players Theater until June 19.
The script imagines the last night of Dr. King’s life — alone in the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, hoarse from giving speech after speech and sermon after sermon as a storm rages outside. He orders a room service coffee, which is delivered by a hotel maid named Camae, who is not what she seems.
Over the course of nearly two hours, the two engage in flirtatious conversation, socratic dialog about differing forms of protest, discussions about the nature of God and more. The play culminates in a poem laying out the future of the movement that King will never get to see.
The play was work-shopped in 2008 and got its premiere in London in 2010, and certainly would have been perfectly relevant at that time. One of its goals was to humanize Dr. King, casting him as a bit of a womanizer and a smoker with holes in his socks (hence the flirting with Camae just after getting off the phone with his wife and children). That was controversial and provocative in 2008; it isn’t anymore. And despite that “warts and all” depiction, the script misses an opportunity to capture the truly radical nature of King’s views and lesser-known rhetoric. Instead, it casts him as the voice of “peaceful protest,” as opposed to Camae’s Malcom X-style views.
Ultimately, the play just isn’t equipped to reckon with everything that’s happened since 2010 — which is quite a lot.
And unfortunately, the future envisioned in the script ends in 2008 with the election of a Black president, as if that event was the culmination of a movement toward racial justice — which we know now, in hindsight, it wasn’t. Even with a final sermon from King directly to the audience urging us to “pick up the baton” and keep up the fight for racial justice, it’s just not challenging enough for the current moment.
That’s not the only issue with the script. It’s also tonally inconsistent, the mood vacillating wildly and implausibly from philosophical to angry to silly without any real prompt. It has a couple attempts at jokes that feel lifted from an entirely different script. And I’m not sure how a play with one setting and two characters can have plot holes, but this one does.
Still, the APT performance — staged in the intimate and beautiful indoor Touchstone Theater — could have made the most of the script with the excellent direction and performances regular patrons have come to expect from the company. Unfortunately, this production falls short on those measures as well.
Gavin Lawrence is a terrific actor, as we’ve seen in his five previous seasons with the company. But it’s difficult to play a real person — not to mention an iconic historical figure like King. One doesn’t wish to see an impersonation, but some effort to capture the very specific tone and timber of King’s voice and manner would have been appreciated.
As Camae, Sola Thompson is charismatic and confident. Both performances, however, suffer from an overly presentational style that felt very close to overacting, as well as direction that seemed to forget the setting at times.
Director Ron OJ Parson does attempt to update the work with a multimedia presentation designed by Mike Tutaj during the poem in which the script culminates. The names of hundreds of Black people killed by police appear projected on the back wall of the stage, along with images of protests and counter-protests and white supremacist rallies and the faces of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Those few minutes do pack an emotional punch, but it feels out of place and unearned.
American Players Theater has given south-central Wisconsin top-notch productions and performances for more than four decades, and has done real and intentional work toward equity and inclusion in recent years. Note, that’s years, plural. They were on board with this work long before the most recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their 2019 production of August Wilson’s Fences was brilliant and uncomfortable, both timeless and relevant as it grappled with the deeply ingrained structural racism upon which this country was built. This year, Lawrence himself is involved in an APT effort to develop new playwrights who are people of color.
So kudos to APT for doing the work; this particular script and production just don’t do much to further the cause.
(Kudos, also, for pandemic safety: the indoor theater is limited to 25% capacity, and the show is presented without intermission and the opportunity to mingle. Masks are still required inside the theater.)
The Mountaintop runs through June 19. Tickets are $61 – $80. A streaming video option is also available.