I make it a hard and fast rule when entering a theater: leave expectations at the door. Even if I know the play or the subject, I want as clean a slate as possible. Be open to the work rather than impose what I think should happen. Or, as Meatloaf sang, “Let the drama tell your heart what to do.”
There have been exceptions. Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, currently at the Rep, became one. For reasons both surprising and annoying, I wrestled with much of her 90-minute comedy-drama about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s last night on Earth. And because of the Critic’s Code — thou shalt not reveal the plot twist upon which an entire play hinges — I can only suggest my reasons why.
In 1968, Dr. King planned to take the Poor People’s Campaign for civil rights and justice to new territory: the North. Until then, the movement had been restricted to Southern states. At Washington, D.C., thousands of protesters would hold a convention and erect a shantytown to show the world the faces of poverty and hunger.
Dr. King announced he’d be in Memphis, beginning March 30, to support the sanitation workers’ strike (“We are God’s sanitation workers,” he said, “working to clear up the snow of despair and poverty and hatred”). On March 16, Robert Kennedy announced he would run for president — and seek Dr. King’s counsel. On March 31, president Lyndon Baines Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. Bobby and Dr. King were vehemently against the war in Vietnam.
On April 2, exhausted, Dr. King declined to speak at the Mason Temple in Memphis. His M.D. ordered him to rest at the motel. But when Dr. King didn’t enter the stage behind Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the assemblage became restless. Abernathy phoned King. “This isn’t my crowd,” he said, “they came tonight in this storm” — a lethal tornado was scouring Tennessee — “to hear King.”
Dr. King dragged himself to the temple and gave a speech both unforgettable — “I’m so happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY OF THE COMING OF THE LORD!” — and unforgettably prophetic.
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, at 6:01 p.m., as Dr. King stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel waiting for his ride to a buffet dinner, what sounded like a firecracker echoed across Mulberry Street.
An hour later, he was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He was 39.
Noam Chomksy: “[Dr. King] was going beyond racist sheriffs in Alabama to northern racism, which is much more deep-seeded and class-based. The civil rights movement was partly destroyed by force and partly frittered away at that stage. It never really made it past the point where you get into class issues.”
I brought expectations to the Rep’s opening night that I had trouble shaking, at first: the memory of the monumental event and the aftermath, as the country almost ripped itself apart in a frenzy of hatred.
And Katori Hall’s play about the tragedy? It’s a fable. The earth only shakes outside the motel, where Dr. King spends some of his last hours with a maid. And she, it turns out, is by far the better-written character.
The play touches on historical details but — and here’s where my expectations grew fangs — isn’t all that shocked by them. It locates Dr. King in a metaphorical relay race (videos of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Lee Evans running in the ’68 Olympics, held that summer, enhance the notion), and he passes the baton to the next leaders. Post–Dr. King videos projected on a screen, however, reveal that no single person has carried it anywhere near as high or ran as far.
Mountaintop isn’t about the greatness of Dr. King. It’s an often whimsical piece about the denial of death and the need to let go, the irreverence extending into the afterlife.
For the Rep, Christopher Ward’s set is two places at once: humble furnishings suggest room 306 of the Lorraine Motel; but they’re inside a giant TV set. The long, thin curtain that separates them serves as a portal to different dimensions.
King was no saint. “When Martin’s relaxed,” said Reverend Billy Kyles, who was at the motel, “he’s relaxed.” As written, and as performed by Larry Bates on opening night, King’s hard to place. Though Bates has some fine moments, especially toward the end, he’s missing Dr. King’s gravitas. Playing his moral solemnity too heavily would cut against the fable. But leaving it out makes the portrait too lightweight, even cartoonish in the middle section, as does his reticence to make a move on the maid.
Her name is Camae. She talks trash, even blasphemes before the Almighty (and if this deity has a local church, I’m joining!). Camae has such a tricky agenda she calls for a tour de force performance. The amazing Danielle Mone Truitt shoulders the burden with such ease, she makes the irreverent plot twist not only believable but fun and moving. ■
The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Roger Guenveur Smith; cast: Larry Bates, Danielle Mone Truitt; scenic design, Christopher Ward; costumes, Anastasia Pautova; lighting, Sherrice Kelly; sound/projection design, Marc Anthony Thompson
Playing through March 31; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000