Not too long ago, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop became the focus of controversy. The two-character play, which premiered in London, won the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play, and was produced on Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, was chosen for production at Kent State University in Ohio. The director, an African-American faculty member, double-cast the male role, with a black actor set to play it at some performances and a white actor at others.
The controversy arose because the role was that of Martin Luther King, Jr., the iconic civil rights leader: the play imagines an encounter between him and a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night before his assassination in 1968.
The Kent State director said he wanted to explore issues of “ownership and authenticity” and discover whether King’s words would have the same power coming from a white man. Playwright Hall was outraged, and added a clause to the play’s licensing agreement that casting actors who are not “African-American or Black” was henceforth prohibited without her prior approval.
Sadly, based on the production currently at the Matrix Theatre, the controversy is more engaging than the play.
It’s April 3, 1968, and Dr. King is in Memphis to support sanitation workers in a labor dispute. As he enters his motel room, he automatically and methodically checks for listening devices, frets that his aide Ralph Abernathy will spend too much time talking to people instead of procuring the cigarettes King craves, and, taking off his shoes, reacts broadly to his “stanky feet.”
Planning to work late, and needing coffee, he calls room service and cajoles the operator into sending up a cup, which shortly arrives, carried in by an attractive young maid named Camae. She recognizes the illustrious visitor and, alternately cowed and coquettish, engages the great man in conversation.
It’s a fascinating concept: what does one of the greatest leaders in history talk about with a stranger – a maid – away from the lights and the cameras? And what ironic pronouncements might he make, unaware that 24 hours later, he will be violently martyred?
Alas, the conversation at the beginning isn’t terribly engrossing, and the main point of interest is whether Camae, a sassy lass who has trouble controlling her profanity, will succeed at what appears to be tempting Dr. King into a more intimate relationship.
And then, at the 40-minute mark of this intermissionless 90-minute play, matters take a sharp turn. King gasps, unable to breathe, and Camae calls out to him as “Michael!” – his original given name. Recovering, he goes on the attack, accusing her of being a spy, of working for “them” – the FBI or worse. But no, she protests, she’s not an agent of any earthly institution: she’s his angel of death, sent to usher him to “the other side.”
At which point, we realize with a start, we have entered The Twilight Zone.
We subsequently learn that God is a black woman who’s not terribly impressed with the Reverend – she hangs up on him when he calls her on the phone. We find out angels are flawed humans: until yesterday, Camae was a living woman of ill repute, and, having died, has been charged by God with bringing Martin to heaven. It’s her first assignment, and if she does it successfully, she will earn her wings as an angel and her sins will be washed away – she’s nervous, as she doesn’t think she’s up to it, and he’s so famous!
It’s all very whimsical and kinda jokey and, surprisingly, broadminded though I consider myself, I must confess I found it a touch distasteful and – dare I say it? – more than a touch disrespectful to the memory of a genuine giant among men.
Danielle Truitt as Camae gets the best lines, and she makes the most of them. Ms Truitt is polished and attractive, lands the jokes expertly, and handles the drama deftly. If, in the end, her role is preposterous, she plays it well, with conviction and commitment.
Martin Luther King’s face and voice are available to anyone with internet access, so we either buy Larry Bates as Martin or not: I did, though his beard was jarring, as I’ve never seen a photo of Dr. King with more than a mustache. And, based on the final moments of the play, when his voice soars and takes on the familiar cadences we’ve come to recognize as Dr. King’s, it’s clear Mr. Bates has the talent to play him.
However, he has chosen – and/or been directed – to act most of the play in an understated, almost offhand, fashion. We find ourselves puzzled at how someone so charismatic in public could be so mundane in private. My companion theorized that perhaps we were meant to see that the private Dr. King was different from the public figure who inspired millions. Fair enough; but theatre, by definition, is larger than life, and actors must project a certain amount of energy, if for no other reason than, without it, people may nod off or check their phones – both of which happened during the opening night performance.
That this underplaying may have been a directorial decision is bolstered by several peculiarities of the production. The handsome set, by John Iacovelli, is spare, and the furnishings – a TV, a rotary phone, a bed, a table and lamp – are real. The props, however, aren’t; or, I should say, some aren’t. When King asks for a smoke, Camae extracts from her apron a (real) pack of Pall Malls, from which King takes an (imaginary) cigarette, which she lights with a (real) lighter, and which he then (mimes) smoking. Later, she produces a (real) flask, from which she pours (imaginary) whiskey into an (imaginary) coffee cup, which King (mimes) drinking. Still later, she grabs an (imaginary) pillow from the (real) bed and whups Dr. King with it, causing him to react (realistically) to the (imaginary) blow. Damned if I know what all that’s about.
The show opens when the lights go out and the color test-pattern on the TV dissolves into black-and-white film footage. We eventually recognize that the footage is of a footrace, which goes on… interminably. Indeed, it’s so long that we begin to fear something has happened backstage, and perhaps one of the actors isn’t ready to enter.
At the end – after the curtain calls – the black-and-white image of the great Mahalia Jackson appears on the TV, and she starts to sing. Nice, you think, good exit music. Except that the house lights don’t come up. After what seems like an eternity, the audience starts leaving anyway – the show is over, after all, the actors have taken their bows – stepping on and tripping over the feet of the people still in their seats in the dark. It’s – literally – a stumbling end to a very curious evening in the theatre.
Written by Katori Hall
Directed by Roger Guenveur Smith
Through April 10
7657 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Tickets: 323-852-1445 or www.matrixtheatre.com