by Anthony Chase
Katori Hall’s play, The Mountaintop, carries the burden of a time and place that reverberates through American history and an event that exposed a nation divided: the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, on the evening of April 3, 1968. This is the last night in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the place of his assassination.
The play is a conversation between Dr. King and a hotel maid.
In New York, where I thought the bright lights of Broadway and the trappings of a multi-million dollar production swallowed up what is really a very small play, movie stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett played the roles very likeably.
In the Manny Fried Playhouse of the Subversive Theatre Collective, Katori’s script benefits from a more modest production. Two actors, a dreary motel room, and a few projections land the message of the piece very powerfully.
At the heart of the play there is a secret, which I won’t give away. Let me just say that the focus of the piece lands squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing the maid—if that’s all she is—and Candace M. Whitfield is certainly up to the task. This maid is a simple but intelligent woman who can more than hold her own with one of the great men of the last century. Ms. Whitfield imbues her with sex appeal, inner conflict, and a great deal of sass.
I in no way diminish Jonathan K. Lee’s performance as Martin Luther King if I say he does well simply to keep the man likeable and dignified while he continues to set Ms. Whitfield up for her next speech. That’s the structure of the play, and director Gary Earl Ross sticks to this pattern without embellishment or contrivance, giving the production an agreeable sincerity and dignity.
The evening begins and ends with video by Peter Johnson—again, accomplished without the high-tech wizardry of Broadway, where we felt as if we’d been hurled headlong into a kind of historical Space Mountain. Here, we are simply invited to contemplate where our country has been, where we are, and where we might be going.
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