Cleveland Play House’s ‘Mountaintop’ built on hallowed but shaky ground
By Bob Abelman
As if atoning for the magnificent but mindless musical “Little Shop of Horrors” being performed on its Allen Theatre stage, the Cleveland Play House has selected Katori Hall’s self-righteous 2009 drama “Mountaintop” for its intimate Outcalt Theatre offering.
The play takes place on the evening of April 3, 1968, in Room 305 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as the road-weary and ailing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. returns to fine-tune his next speech. It is a speech he will never give for, on the hotel balcony at 6:01 p.m. the next day, he will be killed.
Two historic moments have been etched into the country’s collective consciousness regarding the final days of King.
One is in a recording of his famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis from the day before his assassination, when he offered what seemed to be an eerie — some say divine — premonition of his own death:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”
The other is captured in the iconic photo taken by Joseph Louw moments after the shooting, as Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy stand over the slain civil rights leader’s body and point in union in the direction of the gunshots. It is the very moment the man became a martyr and his legacy of nonviolent protest became the stuff of legend.
In her one-act play, Hall attempts to reconcile those moments by showing us what could have occurred during the hours between them when King was merely mortal.
And so we find King (a thoroughly engaging Ro Boddie) with his suit jacket off and his defenses down, talking the night away with a gorgeous young maid named Camae (an absolutely delightful and highly spirited Angel Moore).
Most of the play serves to humanize King and it begins as the great man enters the dark motel room, heads for the bathroom and urinates. He then smokes, drinks, stinks, curses, flirts, laughs, lies and bares his insecurities. Camae reacts, provides Pall Malls, playfully challenges his patriarchal views, and discusses whether and how his message is reaching the black folks of Memphis.
Once King is effectively cut down to size and the novelty of being in his presence grows thin, so too does this play. But the dialogue continues and its rather pedestrian construction becomes increasingly apparent and significantly less captivating.
Only the talented actors and the creativity of director Carl Cofield keep things interesting, but by the third shared cigarette — a lovely piece of stage business that connects the characters and gives us something to look at other than the thunderstorm brewing outside the motel window — this grows tiresome as well.
And just when you think that “The Mountaintop” has peaked and there is no dramaturgical Promised Land in sight, the play’s stark realism and deceptive simplicity turn metaphysical and hypertheatrical, as does Wilson Chin and Alan C. Edwards’ authentic rendering of the Lorraine Motel suite.
When it does, it becomes clear that the playwright’s intention was not to humanize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in order to better connect a modern audience with the man and his message, but to set him up for canonization. The premonitions, we learn, are justified. The martyrdom, we are told, has been sanctified by the highest authority. And so the playwright irreverently romanticizes the very things we were led to believe were being demythified.
Mere admirers of the man will likely find the overtly theatrical bait-and-switch clumsy and manipulative. Others will find comfort in this gospel according to Katori Hall and the tent show revival the play quickly becomes, complete with call-and-response to arouse emotion and mesmerizing stage gimmickry, courtesy of Dan Scully, to change the hearts of nonbelievers.
There was no shortage of shouted “amens” on opening night, some for the beatification of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but most in remembrance of his mission. CV
WHAT: “The Mountaintop”
WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Feb. 14
TICKETS & INFO: $20-$90. Call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 1, 2016.
Lead image: Ro Boddis as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angel Moore as Camae.PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni