Arena Stage The MountaintopBy Bob Ashby • Apr 6th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage: (Info) (Web)
Arena Stage, Kreeger Auditorium, Washington DC
Through May 12th
90 minutes, without intermission
$40-$85 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed April 4th, 2013
“What will posterity think we were — demigods? We’re men — no more, no less — trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.” Benjamin Franklin to John Adams in 1776.
Playwright Katori Hall’s stated purpose in The Mountaintop has a good deal in common with Peter Stone’s 1969 take on the Second Continental Congress. Both seek to move iconic figures off their figurative (and sometimes literal) pedestals and make them more real and powerful for having very human flaws and uncertainties. Hall’s subject is Martin Luther King, on the last night of his life, just prior to his murder 45 years ago this month.
For slightly more than half the play, Hall’s script and Arena Stage’s production, directed by Robert O’Hara, fulfills that purpose admirably. Having just returned from making his magnificent “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King, played by Bowman Wright, is seen pacing the motel balcony as the audience enters the theater, the picture of nervous energy and fatigue. The revolving set features the exterior and interior of the Lorraine Motel, Room 306, designed by Clint Ramos to closely resemble the real locale of King’s death (which have been preserved as part of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee). It is literally a dark and stormy night, with sheets of rain falling around the motel. King is tired, working on a speech to be titled “Why America is Going to Hell.” He needs cigarettes and coffee and to take off his smelly shoes. Room service arrives, in the person of Camae (Joaquina Kalukango), a smart, pretty, profane, sexy, motel worker on her first night on the job.
They talk about the state of the civil rights movement, black/white conflict, integration and separatism, class and sex divisions, Malcolm X, King’s pride in his oratorical skills, his fears (he flinches at the sound of a thunder-clap) and the nature of God (as the old saying goes, She’s Black, and She appreciates a dirty joke now and again). Camae has a brilliant monologue on what to do with the white man. They flirt: sexual tension is in the air, bringing to mind King’s by-now well-known sexual infidelities. The writing is sharp, believable, and often very funny — the show is full of laugh lines that the audience fully appreciated. The performances by Bowman and Kalukango were spot-on, fully credible as what might have been the interaction between King and a very knowing and emotionally vibrant woman who is able to relate to a famous, heroic man as an equal, not a worshipper. One of the strengths of the first half of the play is that Camae, as a kind of everywoman, shows the audience a path to approaching a legend on a human scale.
Then there’s the second half of the play, which suddenly veers off into what feels like a particularly religious corner of the Twilight Zone, leading to, among other things, a very raw and honest expression of King’s fear of death, his increasing radicalization on Vietnam, and his strong sense of the work he needed to finish; a sitcom-like sequence involving a phone call to God (including intentionally anachronistic cell phone jokes) and a pillow fight; a lengthy video montage summarizing history between 1968 and the present; and concluding with an inspiring sermon delivered by King straight out to the audience. There are some moving and some funny pieces in the midst of these rapid-fire changes of tone, but a coherent whole it does not make.
The playwright’s weakest moment comes when, shortly after King, weary of the constant demands of his role and longing to have been just a pastor of his own church, passionately declares “I am just a man.” Camae follows with a beautiful tribute to King’s large, loving heart, which makes him beloved of God and an angel in his own right, in the process undermining the play’s main point that we should look at our heroes as real people, not demigods.
In addition to sterling performances by the two actors (indeed, Kalukango’s portrayal is so riveting as to frequently make The Mountaintop more Camae’s play than King’s), the other remarkable feature of the production is the combination of Japhy Weidman’s lighting design and Jeff Sugg’s projections. There is no justice in the Washington theater world if these do not turn up in the Helen Hayes Award nominations. The rain behind the motel, a mystical snowstorm done entirely with light, the video montage near the end of the show, and above all the profusion of red flowers and petals covering the set during the transition between the first and second parts of thee play are among the most striking visuals anyone will see in local theaters this year.
As someone who lived through the great days of the Civil Rights Movement, and the inspiration that Martin Luther King and others, warts and all, provided to the nation, I find it impossible not to be moved by the material of this play, warts and all. But it is even more moving to read or listen to King’s own words, which carry his vision and humanity more effectively than anything the rest of us can say. Here is his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech of April 3, 1968.
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Bowman Wright
- Camae: Joaquina Kalukango
- Director: Robert O’Hara
- Set and Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
- Lighting Designer: Japhy Weidman
- Sound Designer and Composer: Lindsay Jones
- Projection Designer: Jeff Sugg
- Stage Manager: William E. Cruttenden III
- Assistant Stage Manager: Marne Anderson
- Assistant Set and Costume Designer: Craig Napoliello
- Associate Lighting Designer: Alex Jainchill
- Assistant Lighting Designer: Catherine Girtardi
- Assistant Sound Designer: Anthony Mattana
- Dramatug: Jacey Little
- Show Carpenter: James P. Mulhern III
- Props: Marion Hampton-Dube
- Light Board Operator: Scott Folsom
- Sound Engineers: Adam Johnson, Roc Lee
- Video Engineer: Roc Lee
- Wardrobe Supervisor: Alice Hawfield
- Directing Fellow: Carla McGinnis
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9311.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.