The Mountaintop

A man is but a man

Ever wonder what’s behind the public persona of a celebrity? What is the private person like eating breakfast or getting ready for work or taking care of kids? The conceit of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is to suppose the man behind the legend of Martin Luther King. In doing so, she presumes an earthy man with a flirtatious nature; feet smelling from the sweat of many long marches; and a fearful reaction to gunshot-sounding thunder. Along the way she creates a lively fiction that invokes thoughts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the story juggles drama, comedy, and fantasy. But it would be unfair to divulge some of the special elements of the script that give it added dimensions.

The action occurs on April 3, 1968, in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It is night before King’s assassination. He begins drafting a speech on American arrogance in fighting a war in Viet Nam when so much needs to be done at home. After calling room service for a pot of coffee, a beautiful young African-American maid delivers it to his room. King’s entourage has not arrived, and always dreading loneliness, he repeatedly cajoles Camae (an abbreviation of Carrie Mae) to stay.

Michael Wayne Rice has a look that reflects King so well that the viewer doesn’t have to struggle with that issue. With the exception of one brief speech at the end of the play, well after getting to know the character, Rice doesn’t convey the public gravitas of King. That actually works well to better demonstrate his humanity and makes his flirting seem more playful, rather than potentially adulterous. The warmth Rice conveys also makes us care more about the person.

Natalie Autumn Bennett acts Camae with great exuberance. She grasps all of the character’s contradictions and plays them to the hilt. She is sassy, coquettish, irreverent, argumentative, foul-mouthed, and apologetic in equal measures. She is willing to take on King in his own home ground. They clash on the basic tenets of civil protest, with Camae unsatisfied by King’s passive philosophy. She argues that for African-Americans “to speak by love is to die by hate,” while King counters that “to live by the sword is to die by the sword” as in the case of Malcolm X.

King is impressed by how thoughtful Camae is and challenges her to tell him what kind of speech she would give if she were him. She humorously puts on his suit coat and shoes and delivers an eloquent response. It is here that King realizes that she is something beyond a common maid. And it is here that he reflects on his own immortality and how vulnerable he feels as the tallest tree and easiest target when he is in the pulpit. Expectant of a violent and early end, he alternatively wonders whether he should have been a more committed husband and father, or whether he has done enough to ensure a legacy of leadership to help end the blight of discrimination and deprivation for his people.

Although the play is fanciful, it does depict human character and raises many issues concerning the civil rights movement in a unique and entertaining way. Director Ray Renati presides over an appropriately static staging for the bulk of the play, letting the actors deliver the message. However, the epilog sequence does offer visual excitement as the stage opens up and a video montage is presented.

The Mountaintop plays at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View through January 31.

 

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The Gospel of Lovingkindness

Love’s Labor Lost

“Why would a person steal a pair of shoes,” a disconsolate mother moans, “when he already has his own?” The true-life tragedy of a black teen murdered for his newly purchased Air Jordans is the central incident in Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness, a somewhat didactic but compelling drama given a riveting production by Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project.

Mary is a principled mother whose life is dedicated to creating the opportunity for her only child to have a better existence. She sings “You’re gonna have things I didn’t have.” That son, Manny, seeks the same status as many youths, the fanciest, most expensive athletic shoes of the moment, a want protested by his father whose cheap work boots have lasted for years. Sadly, that desire leads to his untimely death.

Noel is another young black man raised by a mother who missed her chance to escape the Chicago projects. Her quest in to ensure that Noel doesn’t suffer the same fate. He plays by the rules, but because he isn’t good with the books, he is relegated to dead end work with inadequate pay. When receiving his first check from Walmart, a pittance reduced by taxes and FICA, he petulantly wads it up and throws it at his boss. Sadly, that incident leads to his descent.

Through these characters, we see that being black, being poor, being poorly educated, being ghettoized are and have been conditions for failure in this country. Garvey invokes the ghost of Ida B. Wells, a black Chicago leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1800’s to represent the long struggle and its shortfall in bringing truly equal opportunity to African-Americans. She rallies followers to demand change that will make a difference.

Offsetting positive changes that have occurred since Wells’ time and the 150 years since the end of the Civil War are ominous developments. Lynchings of the past have been replaced by police killings, and putting guns in the hands of bad elements has triggered black-on-black violence and murder. Coincidental to Walmart’s paltry pay in this drama, Walmart just announced the closure of its Oakland store, a move attributed to the City of Oakland’s increasing the minimum wage in hopes that workers can receive a living wage. Regrettably, much of the personal dignity that the black community prided itself in in the past has been eroded by cynicism and fatalism that contributes to bad decisions and to holding the community back. Yet, as indicated by the title, a reference to Jesus Christ’s message, Garvey doesn’t paint only despair today or in the future.

The venue of the play is the intimate chapel of Oakland City Church with the audience against the long walls and the action in the middle. The production is accordingly spare. There are no sets, and sound is limited mostly to storms and a boom box song. Illumination is restricted to tens of candles and white lights from permanent ceiling installations, plus a few klieg-type lights on the floor, but this allows for considerable lighting effects. The beauty of this Michael Socrates Moran directed piece is that the production is really about the story and the acting.

That a young and small company like Ubuntu can attract such outstanding actors is a great tribute, but the honors go to the actors themselves who are exceptional. Only Dawn Troupe as Mary acts a single part, and she does so with understated grace and melancholy. Halili Knox absolutely pops in several roles including Noel’s mother. Though she plays somber moments well, her charisma sparkles in high energy segments. William Hartfield impresses playing both young men, showing his ability to play swagger and despair equally. Dorian Locket as Mary’s ex and others, imbues them all with great vigor, fervor and conviction. And Rolanda Dene makes well of her opportunity to play Ida B. Wells and is the finest voice among several in the occasional unaccompanied songs and ditties.

The power of the actors is unleashed in several high energy parts when they break the fourth wall and engage audience members with strong eye contact and even touch. One criticism of the production that may rest with the playwright or the direction or both is the confusion caused by players in multiple roles. Sometimes characters are not clearly identified in fast moving action. It is easier to absorb different characters when they are played by different actors, but special attention is required when they are not. But minor flaws aside, any person of goodwill will appreciate an evening with this script and this cast.

The Gospel of Lovingkindness is produced by Ubuntu Theater Project and plays at Oakland City Church, 2735 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, through January 31.

 

of Serpents and Seaspray

A flight of fantasy

Iro is a sad young teen whose parents died tragic deaths, and who now lives with a family that abuses her. Her solace is an imaginary friend, Annika, and her quest for the winged Pegasus that symbolizes her yearning for figurative and literal escape from the painful present. Together, girl and spirit climb aboard steamer trunks on a barren stage and visit a world that Iro knows only through the adventure stories told by her archeologist uncle, now in Greece.

Thus, Act One of Rachel Bublitz’s world premiere of Serpents and Sea Spray is a wild, episodic voyage in which Iro and her invisible accomplice fly by the great sites of the world and encounter pirates and a circus troupe along the way. But intermittently, they must return to the sad reality of suffering and loss. The action is frenetic in the manner of a fantasy farce. Many in the audience respond favorably to this style, though some, this writer included, find it a bit clanging and disjointed. Because actors play multiple roles, it can be a little confusing to figure which parts they are playing, and sometimes, whether they are in fantasy or reality. But the play is worth seeing for the elements that director Ariel Craft has successfully integrated.

One thing for sure is that the acting is superb throughout the cast. Maria Leigh as Iro is intense and in total command of her role – a seemingly exhausting, high energy part. As Annika, Maria Marquis is amazing. She has elasticity like Jim Carrey and uses facial and whole body expression, as well as exacting delivery of lines, to great comic effect.

Andrew Calabrese is solid as the lead male actor in multiple parts, most importantly as the unnamed uncle. Sabrina de Mio is a commanding presence in the meaty, materfamilias/gang leader/nurse roles she portrays. Her characterizations are widely differing, and she is called on to affect various mannerisms and accents, which she does with glee. Laura Domingo and Heren Patel provide fine support in smaller parts and are clearly capable of major roles.

Act Two reveals a split personality in the production, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it produces the play’s redemption. A more measured poignancy is introduced to the action. Stemming from the closing incident in Act One, which had seemed to be a fantasy, Iro is hospitalized with multiple injuries. The stage is now but a few square black columns and a bed.

Her uncle returns from Greece to tend to her. While Iro still pursues the quest for Pegasus, this act is very grounded by the presence of the reality-driven uncle. Despite the uncle’s sacrifice to be with her; his efforts to be accommodative; and his willingness to play along with her fantasies, Iro is largely implacable. She now sees him as a regular person rather than the adventure hero that she’d imagined him from the stories that he’d told in years past. The character we wanted to console and embrace in Act One becomes an unsympathetic ingrate in Act Two. Of course, the denoument concerns if or how the conflicts resolve, and for that, you have to see for yourself.

of Serpents and Sea Spray is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through January 30

Dangerous Corner

Let sleeping dogs lie

Dangerous Corner marked a significant turn in literary life of its author, J. B. Priestley, and more broadly, in the evolution of topic matter in theater. After a rough start, the play had a long run in its 1932 London premiere and succeeded abroad. Priestley became a prominent playwright of the decade. The play was noted for broaching the topics of homosexuality and recreational drugs in an unprecedented manner – all this in the context of affairs and other betrayals. SF City Theatre Company offers a low budget production of this interesting play, which has merit but seems that it could use a couple more rehearsals.

The parlor room drama concerns family members associated with a publishing firm and their close friends. The closely bound group is ostensibly successful and happy. A looming cloud is that Martin, brother of the senior partner in the firm, Robert, died of a gunshot wound a year earlier. This occurred shortly after a small embezzlement at the firm, and connected dots suggested that Martin stole the money and committed suicide out of guilt.

At a social gathering of the friends and family, interest centers on a cigarette box that Robert’s wife, Freda, had given to Martin on the very day of his death. However, close friend, Olwen, remembers a timeline of that day at variance with Freda’s rendering. But Robert is unconvinced by Olwen’s yielding to Freda’s version.

In contradiction to his later assertion that illusions help us to live, Robert doggedly pursues the truth, leading to a stream of revelations involving the whole gathering. Was the cavalier Martin as deserving of affection as it had seemed? Who did he really love? Had everyone told all about their actions on the day of the death? Were the marriages in the group as solid as they appeared? Were there illicit passions or passions unrequited? The drama is interesting for its twists and turns; for its exposing illusions; and for developing the notion that one small, seemingly innocuous incident can lead to profound and far reaching consequences.

The production is directed by David Acevedo, who stages the action well – briskly moving through the dialogue and balancing movement around the stage. The set design is appealing, reflecting appropriate period furnishing styles and using the space well. The ladies are well outfitted in stylish cocktail dresses and the gents in tuxedos, enhancing the feel of class and period.

Collectively, the actors are most effective in expressing intense emotions such as shouting, laughing, and crying, but they are less convincing at normal conversation. Each actor has moments of stronger performance, but there is more stumbling through lines than is expected. Hopefully, better overall delivery and confidence will grow through the run. Deborah Joves as Freda and Mary Waterfield as Olwen give the better performances. Lucas Hoag as Charles Stanton, the non-family-member partner in the firm, shows some panache and promise.

Dangerous Corner is produced by SF City Theatre and is playing at the Royce Gallery (which, incidentally offers free wine, coffee, and little tidbits at each performance in the house, whatever company is producing!), 2901 Mariposa St., in San Francisco through January 24. Tickets are available at http://www.BrownPaperTickets.com.