The Mountaintop is a compelling emotional night’s journey towards an inescapable fate as we join American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr in room 306 of The Lorraine Motel, the night before his assassination.
For those unfamiliar with American history, the play’s title refers to the last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” delivered by King the night before he was assassinated while leaving the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee on 4th of April,1968.
The play’s staging is simple – two beds, a chair and a desk in a shabby motel room. The Basement Theatre’s intimate space is the ideal setting for us to join King for what we, the audience, know will be his last night on earth.
The play has been produced by Pasifika Theatre movement FCC, under the direction of Fasitua Amosa, with an all Pasifika cast. Actor David Fane brings an icon to life as he plays the alternately blustering, anxious, flirty and masterful Preacher King, while Nicole Whippy is a delight as Camae, the seemingly ordinary room service maid with plenty of opinions of her own about how things ought to be.
As the play opens to Sam Cooke’s classic A Change is Gonna come, the iconic King is all too human as he fusses over his missing toothbrush, getting cigarettes and disposing of his smelly shoes. Then, literally, a bolt of lighting heralds the arrival of the sassy Camae with a newspaper and a pot of coffee.
Fane and Whippy deliver outstanding performances as the pair argue, flirt, and ponder the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. It’s a big ask for two characters to carry an entire play but for 85 minutes we are the delighted onlookers to verbal sparring of Camae and King as they veer from debating the tactics of Malcolm X, how to look sexy while smoking, whether King should keep his moustache and, as the fatal dawn approaches, King’s terror of dying and leaving his work undone. It’s alternately funny, inspiring and moving. By the play’s end we share the heartache of King’s inevitable death and, along with Camae, have been companions on King’s journey to understanding that all things must come to an end and that the baton can be passed on.
Katori Hall’s play is perhaps more meaningful now than when it was first released in a hopeful 2009, just as Barack Obama was elected President. Sadly, in the Trump era we are left reflecting if much has changed at all.
The Mountaintop is a creatively reimagined story that brings to life Martin Luther King Jr as a person rather than as an icon giving us an insight into the perils and enormity of the task he faced battling institutionalized racism.
Reviewed by Adrienne Kohler