Only a bed, chair and table, and two ugly red rugs occupy the stage. A handsome man enters the shabby Memphis motel room. It is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Justin Tanks). Tanks commands the character with swagger and grace. He barely resembles King physically, but his delivery is impeccable. “America’s going to hell,” he mumbles, pulling off his shoes. In this moment, King is just a man, exhausted from fighting to deliver peace to America’s masses. Enter Camae (Kennedy Hall), a spitfire maid, who ends up being more of a godsend than she first appears. They share a cigarette and strike up a conversation that neither King, nor the audience, realizes will be a life-changing exchange.
Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, on stage at Good Luck Macbeth until Sept. 9, is a gripping glimpse into the final hours in the life of a man mostly remembered in black-and-white. Without even a scene break, King and Camae chat, joke, debate, and even flirt, while their conversation drives deeper and deeper until their racial angst fills the room like smoke. At one point, Camae stands on the bed, wearing the Reverend’s coat and shoes, and improvises a compelling speech she would give if she were King. How can we fight the war in Vietnam, but not the one being fought here everyday against Negroes in the streets, she seethes.
After a major plot twist, I struggled to keep my emotions contained. I imagine some might find the importance of King’s life and story trivialized by this sharp detour, but I had no trouble fully appreciating the more fictitious elements. They only embolden the real messages that pervaded King’s work. In a chilling moment, King realizes it’s snowing in Memphis. He opens the door to find a white and ominous snowdrift at his feet—a metaphor for the destiny he cannot escape.
Director Sandra Brunell Neace and her two shining stars flawlessly bring Hall’s script to life—a story both heartwarming and heartbreaking—leaving many in the audience in tears. Together, Tanks and Hall bring to the stage a breathtaking passion and hold it just at the boiling point throughout. Though it will soon be fifty years since the world lost King, The Mountaintop feels more urgent and relevant than ever. I left the theater inspired, but admittedly bewildered. A single line echoed in my head; one of the first spoken by King in the opening scene: “America, you are too arrogant.”
What: The Mountaintop
Where: Good Luck Macbeth, 713 S. Virginia St.
When: Through Sept. 9
By Owen Bryant