San Diego REPertory Theatre’s mission statement, in part, says that they are dedicated to producing intimate and provocative work that nourishes progressive, political and social values, which in turn feeds the curious soul. That said, the current production of “The Mountaintop”, written by Katori Hall, and deftly directed by Roger Guenveur Smith, is right on the money.
It’s a talky two-character exploration leading up to of the last day in the life of Martin Luther King Jr, as imagined by playwright Hall. It’s full of metaphors and allegories, and somewhat biblical, at times, but it has a lot say to those that listen.
The setting is the Lorraine motel in Memphis Tennessee, in 1968. It’s the night of April 3rd, the day before Dr. King’s assassination. Alone and just trying to relax after delivering his emotional “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, he calls Room Service for some coffee.
A knock at the door reveals the Room Service maid, Camae (wonderfully played by Danielle Mone-Truitt) who catches the eye and the interest of Dr. King (solidly played by Larry Bates. Bates doesn’t attempt to do an exact impersonation of King’s sonorous deep orator voice, and/or other personal attributes. Bates, to his credit, just digs in and delivers a human MLK, warts and all. It’s an intelligent and sensitive performance.
It’s not easy to portray iconic public figures. How much of the acknowledged biography does one include and still deliver an objective, convincing performance? Fortunately for the audience, Bates solves that dilemma with help from playwright Hall.
The flashier part in this two-character dramedy, however, belongs to Ms. Mone-Truitt, as Camae, a beautiful motel employee, with long legs and sparkling doe-like eyes, who has the vernacular of a street-smart, sassy lassie, down pat. Her performance is a finely judged and highly nuanced little gem, and it’s dripping with sexuality. But wait. There is another dimension to Camae’s character, which comes later in the play, and it comes with a stunning revelation. Did you know that … No, I won’t spoil this provocative play which will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think, and hopefully, make you see things in a different light.
Hall’s imagined story replete with metaphors, mystery, light comedy moments, and perhaps a little burnishing of images, none-the-less, is framed as a theatrical experience (it’s performed without an intermission). And if one accepts the combining of theatrical rituals and the power of oral histories and myths to tell a story of a four hundred year history of black life in America – without sugar coating its message for white folks – then the journey is well worth the time.
There is a heck of a lot of intriguing black/white history and resentment simmering just beneath the surface of the play’s dialogue, and believe me there’s plenty of food for thought to digest on that subject. However, the key to fully understand and appreciate the production, in my opinion, lies in its sub-text. Playwright Hall is an emerging creative storyteller to keep one’s eye on in the future.
The technical credits by Guenveur Smith’s creative team are solid. Led by Scenic Designer Christopher Ward who provides a spare but functional motel space, along with a Lighting Design by Sherrice Kelley, plus an all-encompassing sound and creative projection designs (including thunder and lightning) by Marc Anthony Thompson are first-rate.
I’m a huge fan of the late, great, August Wilson and his take on the African American experience in Pittsburgh, PA. True, Hall is no August Wilson yet, but she is off to a great start in her West Coast premiere of “The Mountaintop”. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to feel and understand a culture different from my own. Hall’s decision to use and weave a great public figure like Dr. King into her story, as a character, was an inspired choice. It’s been said that when ordinary people have greatness thrust upon them, the truly great ones respond in kind. Dr. King was only thirty-nine years old at the time of his death. But his legacy of non-violence in the quest for racial equality in America lives on.
“The Mountaintop” runs at San Diego REP on the Lyceum stage through March 31, 2013. Don’t miss it!