BWW Review: Underground Railway Theater Scales THE MOUNTAINTOP
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by Nancy Grossman
Written by Katori Hall, Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Set Designer, Susan Zeeman Rogers; Costume Designer, Michael Dates; Lighting Designer, David Roy; Properties Artisan, Ed Haartigan; Sound Designer, Elisheba Ittoop; Projections Designer, John Oluwole ADEkoje; Dialect Coach, Liz Hayes; Assistant Director, Tasia A. Jones; Stage Manager, Dominique D. Burford; Production Assistant, Assistant Stage Manager, Amanda Sheehan
Performances through February 3, Produced by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.centralsquaretheater.org
Nearly forty-five years after his death, DR. Martin Luther King, Jr., remains larger than life and an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Every year we celebrate his birthday as a national holiday on the third Monday in January. For all that he accomplished and all that he stood for, his legacy is secure. It is fitting that Underground Railway Theater is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by producing The Mountaintop, Katori Hall's play that offers an unusual portrait of Dr. King following his historic speech on the eve of his assassination.
Set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, The Mountaintop is a two-hander which imagines an encounter between MLK and a maid who brings coffee to his room late that night. While the dialogue recounts many actual events and makes mention of other leading figures in the movement, the character of Camae is fictional, and the likelihood of a meeting as portrayed is fantastical. However, that quality is precisely what gives Hall license to craft a conversation that shows King as a man, not as an icon. He may have been to the mountaintop, but he was a human being, at times beset by self-doubt, insecurity, and a wandering eye. Camae stands in as admirer, sounding board, temptress, and, ultimately, a friend who reinforces the breadth of his impact on the world.
Maurice Emmanuel Parent finds a variety of ways to bring forth King's humanity, whether it's devilishly trading double entendres with Camae, trembling at the sound of a sudden thunder clap, or, on a long distance phone call, telling his child to obey mommy. Parent has an everyman aura with a vein of intelligence and character strength coursing through him that informs his portrayal. He plays the role with equal parts cockiness and humility, gently moving the relationship with Camae along to deeper waters. As the stakes change, Parent gradually steps up his intensity until the crowning moment when he delivers the speech of his life.
Camae's story arc travels a circuitous route, but Kami Rushell Smith never goes off track. At first blush, she is a little shy and star struck upon meeting King in his room, but her natural feistiness soon overtakes her. She uses her youth and beauty (and cigarettes) to win his favor, rapidly becoming comfortable enough to speak her mind. At one point, she dons his suit coat and shoes, steps up onto the bed, and imitates him making a speecH. Smith nails it, but gives a more heartfelt speech later when Camae reveals a very personal story to King. Her level of intensity also rises to an incredible pitch in the waning moments of the play.
There is a plot twist that cannot be disclosed, but it causes a major shift in the relationship between Camae and King, and with it, the playwright conceived of a rapid-fire concluding scene that rivals the finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian does a masterful job of building to this moment. Both Parent and Smith reach the peak of their intensity at the same time as they interact with and react to an incredible projection display by John Oluwole ADEkoje. It is spellbinding for the audience.
Despite the fantasy aspects of The Mountaintop, there are a number of elements in the URT production that contribute to its authenticity. Parent and Smith adopt Southern drawls that they developed with Dialect Coach Liz Hayes. Michael Dates costumes Smith in a 60s-era maid's uniform and Parent wears a typical suit, but the hole in his sock marks him as a common man. The room in the Lorraine Motel is recreated by Scenic Designer Susan Zeeman Rogers, Lighting Designer David Roy, and Properties Artisan Ed Hartigan. The heavy rain and scary thunder sounds are courtesy of Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop.
The Mountaintop premiered in London in 2009 and won the 2010 Olivier Best New Play Award. It opened on Broadway in September, 2011, with Samuel L. Jackson making his Broadway debut and Angela Bassett co-starring. Surrounding and supporting the Underground Railway Theater production are a series of "Central Conversations" with the theme "Passing the Baton: Celebrating and Carrying Forward the Legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement." (A complete schedule of these events can be found on the website.)
When Dr. King made what turned out to be his final speech, he said that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. He suggested that he might not get there with them, but that his people would get to the Promised Land. In the play, he wonders aloud to Camae whether there will be someone else to take up the baton if he is not destined to get there. They're lining up at the Central Square Theater to have that conversation and to keep the baton in motion. That should be the legacy of this powerful and riveting play.