‘Mountaintop’ humanizes MLK in allowing him down from pedestal

Playwright Katori Hall started writing “The Mountaintop” in 2007, just as Barack Obama began running for president. But she had in mind her mother.

Hall’s mother was a politically active teenager in 1968, and a huge admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King. In her home, King’s picture was on the wall next to Jesus. On April 3, 1968, she had an opportunity to hear him speak at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

“So she asked her mother if she could go see him,” said Hall by phone from Memphis. “Big Mama said, ‘You know someone gonna bomb that church.’ There was a rumor that someone was out to get King. My mother decided to listen to her mother and stay home. He was assassinated the next day. It became one of the biggest regrets of her life.”

In the play, now in production at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Broad Street, Hall recreates the night before King was killed at the Lorraine Motel. After his famous “mountaintop” speech, he retreats to a drab motel to work on his next speech. There, he is visited by a motel maid bringing coffee and conversation.

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His feet stink. He’s tired. King calls his wife, then flirts with the maid. There’s a pillow fight.

Eventually he falls into the arms of the maid, Camae, weeping and overwhelmed by the weight of the civil rights movement.

“I never wanted to do this,” says King, played by Sekou Laidlow. “I just wanted to be a minister of a small church.”

A different view of MLK

This is not the King that made a lasting impression on Katori Hall’s mother, nor on the mind of the nation. The play is a proactive attempt to knock King off the pedestal he has occupied for so many decades.

Director Patricia McGregor says the King legacy needs to be humanized if it is to continue to be effective.

“I feel closer to King — and more inspired by King — knowing that he was a man who was exhausted, afraid, tempted and worried, and yet still woke up in the morning and braved bullets and braved doubt and fear, in order to move the struggle forward,” said McGregor. “It’s a problematic element of any movement to idealize people to where they never have doubt or fear.”

“The Mountaintop” takes place entirely in the small motel room in Memphis. The set was even designed with a motel ceiling, cutting the stage’s airspace by half. The cramped set and naturalistic performances show King as a regular guy with regular problems.

But, at the very end, the script allows King to burn, however briefly, with the fiery eloquence that made him so memorable. McGregor matches his Baptist eloquence with a bit of her own dramaturgical magic — the nature of which I am honor-bound not to reveal here.

“This is theater. I took many liberties,” said Hall. “This is not a docudrama. It is not about exactly what happened the night before. I take the audience on a more fantastical ride. There’s an almost spiritual element to the play. It’s about Dr. King wrestling with his inner demons.”

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