To call Katori Hall’s original vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth in THE MOUNTAINTOP a work of historical fiction would be a gross understatement. It’s that, but it’s also an exploration of socio-political themes through the lens of mystic realism, an irreverent perspective on religion and its fundamental values, a rapid-fire chronological recounting of flashpoint American headlines since the 1960s, and a simultaneously earthy and surreal fantasia on the private thoughts and character of the man, preacher, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement who changed the world and had an accurate premonition of his own death, as delivered in his titular speech. People’s Light captures all of the provocative ideas, cheeky humor, outrageous twists and turns, and contemporary references in its current production of Hall’s tendentious play.
It’s April 3, 1968, and MLK, just returned to Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address at the Mason Temple, orders up some room service. What he gets is Camae, an attractive straight-shooting foul-mouthed maid who, in her first day on the new job, delivers him coffee and a whole lot more. They flirt and cuss, smoke and drink, discuss and debate everything from the state of race relations and the logic of love and non-violence in a hateful and violent world, to the sins of the flesh and the fear of death that makes him jump at the sound of thunder. But “Preacher King” soon finds that there’s more to this audacious working woman than meets the eye.
Bowman Wright as Dr. King and Patrese D. McClain as Camae, under the no-holds-barred direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, are fully committed to Hall’s inventive take on the subject. They bring a profane, and very human, element to the characters, as he bums Pall Mall cigarettes and reacts to his own smelly shoes and stinky feet, and she liberally sprinkles her street-smart southern language with obscenities and pours whisky into his cup from a flask she has hidden in her apron. But they also preach passionately about their characters’ beliefs and reflect seriously on King’s life and legacy. They make us laugh, make us think, and make us realize that we, too, could make a difference in the world, if we would “pick up that baton and pass, pass, pass it along.”
The forceful performances are supported by a top-notch artistic design. Joshua L. Schulman’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s sound create the feel of a prophetically stormy night and then change dramatically with the surprising revelations in Hall’s plot. Costume designer Marla J. Jurglanis provides a fitting suit for the Reverend and uniform for the maid, and Tony Cisek’s set realistically evokes the modest motel room, with the infamous balcony on which King was killed visible through the window. And Katherine Freer’s digital projections bombard the walls, floor, and ceiling with a rapid succession of black-and-white images of relevant episodes from US history post-1968, as Camae recites them to a hip-hop beat with the distinct hindsight of our present times, giving new import to the work that was only just begun by Dr. King.
[People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA] September 28-October 30, 2016; peopleslight.org.