LaShondra Hood & Xavier Harris. Photo: UofL Theatre Arts.
By Katori Hall
Directed by Johnny Jones
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2018 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop imagines that the night before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Xavier Harris) understands that these are his last hours on earth. He is allowed the rare gift of considering his legacy and whether his work will be carried on. Who will pick up the baton?
In the motel room in Memphis, where just hours before he had delivered his famous, “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, a maid named Camae (LaShondra Hood) delivers King his room service coffee and remains to challenge “Preacher Kang”, as she calls him, in many of his perceptions of himself. Before the morning comes, the playwright takes the audience to unexpected heights of supernatural delirium.
Before that, there is plenty of impassioned rhetoric balanced against the grounded reality that King was only human – “I am just a man!”
Most dramatizations of Dr. King’s life have been fairly straightforward biography and docudrama, (Selma, Boycott, the King miniseries), so this play might be the first time he is utilized as a character beyond the historical reality. Hall’s commentary is on King himself, but also on the cult of personality that lifts such public figures into the upper stratosphere of celebrity, and what we impose upon those that depart much too early in their lives.
To speak much about Camae is to risk spoiling the experience of the play, but the character is crucial to realizing Hall’s intention. It is also LaShondra Hood’s MFA thesis performance, and she pulls out all the stops, filling the stage with a woman who is unsophisticated and ribald but also built upon spirituality and grace.
Xavier Harris is a fine MLK, and the production dauntingly positions his entrance to follow an audio recording of a portion of the “mountaintop” speech accompanied by a film of King himself. But the onstage King is Hall’s creation, a private man struggling with his role in society, and Harris wisely never attempts to mimic the familiar sound and cadence of the newsreel footage. He makes the role his own by trusting the text.
Technical problems dogged opening night, with inconsistent sound cues for the rainstorm in Kevin D. Gawley’s creative lighting design and a rather awkward and distracting removal of a set piece in preparation for a finale that reaches for but just falls short of transcendence.
Hall’s MLK is all too human: he is very concerned with the earthly matters of communication with his wife and children while simultaneously casting a wolfish eye on Camae. Both observations fit what we know of the man, but she is also exploring the deification of such a figure into popular culture icon. While the text fairly begs comparison to the Passion play narrative from biblical scripture, it also forces us to question our own relationship to such figures without necessarily undermining their impact. It’s a tricky balancing act, poised to slip into mawkish hagiography in the wrong hands. Fortunately, director Johnny Jones has a good understanding of the material and guides the action with confidence.
The Mountaintop is the opening production of the African American Theatre Program’s 25th Anniversary season at the University of Louisville.
September 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, & 29 @ 8:00pm
September 23 & 30 @ 3:00pm
Ticket prices are $20 General Admission; $15 for Faculty/ Staff/ Seniors (65+)/Non-UofL Students (with Student ID); $10 for Current UofL Students (with Student ID). Tickets may be purchased by contacting the box office at 502-852-6814 or by visiting UofL Theatre Arts website at http://louisville.edu/theatrearts/productions.
University of Louisville Dept of Theater Arts
2314 South Floyd Street
Louisville, KY 40292
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.