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.