Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on the night of April 3, 1968.
On the last night of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is trying to figure out what he should say in a speech to be entitled “Why America is Going to Hell.” But he is easily distracted, searching the room for listening devices, and craving coffee and a cigarette.
Plus, Coretta forgot to pack his toothbrush.
“The Mountaintop” takes its title from the famous peroration of King’s final speech. The play provides author Katori Hall with an opportunity to allow King to say what will be left unsaid when he is assassinated the next day.
Instead of creating a dialogue between King and another Civil Rights icon, Hall pairs him with a maid, who shows up with coffee and a newspaper she uses to shield herself from the rain.
Gabriel Mayfield avoids imitating the careful cadences of King’s deliberate and measured way of speaking, using his large physical presence and deep voice to give weight to King’s greatness.
Daysha Ramsey’s Camae recognizes King from the television, but she is neither overwhelmed nor underappreciative of who she is talking to. Ramsey’s lightness of being helps make their conversation seem like nothing out of the ordinary for the most part, although there are obvious moments of foreshadowing, as when she warns King, “Civil Rights will kill you before those Pall Malls will.”
“The Mountaintop” has a more personal genesis for the playwright. As a young girl, her mother had wanted to see King’s speech, but her grandmother refused because of fears the church would be bombed. The character of Camae is named for Hall’s mother, Carrie Mae, because Hall “wanted to put both of them in the same room and give my mother that opportunity that she didn’t have in 1968.”
“The Mountaintop” is done as a stage reading on the NorShor stage, performed on a set of the motel room with staging, projection and video editing by Phillip Fazio.
There are a few moments when looking at the scripts detracts from the dialogue (e.g., when King answers the phone and Mayfield reads “Dr. King here”), but Fazio and videographer Pascal Pastrana are able to use closeups that keep the scripts out of frame for the key moments that have the most impact.
Notice how Camae’s head is framed when she says, “Tomorrow’s already here,” how the camera circles around the two when King become agitated by the sound of thunder, and the strategic use of both overhead and long-distance shots.
Although this play was written in 2009 and set in 1963, there are moments that resonate in the America of today. King is troubled by the death of Larry Payne, a 16-year-old African American teenager who was killed by the police following a march in support of the Memphis Sanitation Strike that had brought King to town.
Ultimately, the strength of this play turns out to be not what King has to say to Camae (and us), but what Camae has to say to King. That is what justifies our visit to “The Mountaintop.”
If you “go”
What: “The Mountaintop.”
When: Available for streaming via ShowTix4U through midnight on Jan. 18.
Tickets: $10 plus fees for 48-hour access.
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.