Sunday, January 31, 2016

CPH’s compelling THE MOUNTAINTOP places spotlight on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Katori Hall, who wrote the award winning play THE MOUNTAINTOP, which is in production at Cleveland Play House, in her script attempts to answer such questions as: What was Martin Luther King, Jr. like as a person?  With all the death threats that King received, what was his last night alive like?  What did he believe was going to be his ultimate role in the Black rights movement?

The play takes place on April 3, 1968.  It is a “what/if” imagining  of the night before King’s assassination.   King returns to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after delivering his soon to be famous speech “I've Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he stated, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now. . . . I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight that we, as people, will get to the Promised Land.”  Some have theorized that he was somehow prophesying his imminent assassination.

He’s exhausted, alone, out of cigarettes, and a storm rages outside.  He calls for room service.  A young lady (Camae) appears with coffee.  Since King was hinted to be a womanizer, Camae’s presence opens supposition of what might come.  He flirts with her, bums several Pall Malls, and drinks some of her whiskey.

As the extended one-act unfolds, she becomes the instrument by which King, at least in Hall’s vision, is forced to confront his destiny and his legacy.

Hall presents a real King, a chain smoker, the possessor of smelly feet, who swears, and, in spite of his bravado, has fears, including being terrified by loud noises.  This is a King who carries the burden of the civil rights movement and is weary from being away from his family for so long. 

Hall gives us a different figure than the powerful man who has become the bigger than life legend.  She puts the spotlight on “You are a man, not a God,” a real man, with real life problems.

Rather surprisingly, THE MOUNTAINTOP premiered in London, not in America.  It won the 2009 Olivier (the British equivalent of the Tony) Best New Play Award.  The play transferred to Broadway in 2011 with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the leads.

At the Cleveland Play House, Director Carl Cofield has reimagined the Broadway production of the script.  The ending is much more visually powerful.  This is a production which gives a deep meaning to the King legend as an element in modern American history, rather than just the Black movement.  

The show is well-paced, the humor nicely keyed and the characters accessible. The director, with the author’s help, presents an unknown presence who gives us cause to pause and ponder whether Camae is real or a figment of the imagination.  Is she a vision that King imagined or a theatrical device for Cofield to tell her story?

Ro Boddie, who played King in “Freedom: an Ode to Bayard Rustin” at the La Jolla Playhouse and Kansas City Repertory Theatre,  gives us “King-like.”  He does not try and imitate the legend’s famous vocal sound or movements.  He wisely sticks to a speaking tone and pronunciation pattern that doesn’t mimic King’s preaching.   This is a strong and well-tuned performance which shows King’s strengths, weaknesses and humanity.

The beautiful Angel Moore is effective as a cross between a typical television smart-aleck African American character and a sassy street-wise lady.  Though, at times she goes into a squeaky soprano, that makes her nearly impossible to understand, she is effective in her sensuality and humor, and nicely transforms herself into an “angelic” self when a plot switch requires it.  Her lines, “Fuck the white man,” and “We are all scared, of others and ourselves,” brought strong audience reaction.

Wilson Chin’s huge set seems out of proportion for a cheap motel room, but the expanse of the setting makes sense when the walls explode for the final scene.  Dan Scully’s projections are effective in helping develop director Hall’s vision for the conclusion of the play.  Elisheba Ittoop’s sound and Alan C. Edwards lighting designs also helped in plot development.

Capsule judgement: THE MOUNTAINTOP is not an easy play to watch, especially since we know what is going to happen the next day on the balcony outside that motel  room.  That is not to say the play is depressing. It’s not. It is filled with vivid imagery and humor.  The Cleveland Play House reinvention of the script is a perfect Black History month offering and is a theatrical must see!

THE MOUNTAINTOP runs through February 14, 2016, at the Outcalt Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Next up at CPH:  Shakespeare’s THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program) at The Helen from February 10-20, followed by LUNA GALE from February 27-March 20 2016.