We've come a long way since that dark day in April 1968 when DR. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. But despite how far we've come as a society in such a relatively short time, there's still a long row to hoe before we reach the promised land of equality in this world in which we live.
That notion is borne home stunningly by Katori Hall's acclaimed play The Mountaintop, now presented in its Nashville premiere-just 12 months after its critically lauded Broadway premiere with Samauel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett-in an astonishingly crafted production directed by Jackie Welch Schlicher and starring Mary McCallum and Rashad "thaPoet" Rayford. Presented as part of the annual Shades of Black Theatre Festival, there are only two more performances (Wednesday, September 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 23 at 3 p.m. at the Darkhorse Theatre) and you owe it to yourself to see this startlingly frank and beautifully constructed play which has made Hall, a native of Memphis, one of the most accomplished playwrights of her generation.
Clearly, Hall is a gifted writer-that point goes without saying, thanks to her exquisitely worded prose and her vision for the piece-and she shows off her amazing imagination that creatively takes audiences into King's room at the Lorraine on the night before his death. It's a dark and stormy night, to be sure, but when new motel maid Camae delivers a cup of coffee to the civil rights icon, it is as if every star in the heavens is shining upon the room, illuminating Dr. "Kang" (as Camae calls him) in all his frailties and all his glories.
It's a tricky situation, to be sure, to focus upon someone who is so iconic as Martin Luther King, the man whose name now adorns street signs all over the world and whose legacy of hope amid despair, and whose devotion to the ideals he long espoused, continue to be felt in our society. It's shocking to recall how horrible things were in 1968 in Memphis: King was in town to advocate for sanitation workers' rights to march in protest of their treatment by leaders of the city's white oligarchy. He found himself in a crucible fueled by racism and a shocking disregard for the human condition which, underpinned by an almost constant stream of death threats, provided a perfect storm of heartbreakingly horrific proportions.
It is into this cauldron of change that Hall painstakingly creates her fictional account of King's last night on earth and his interactions with a young Memphis motel maid. Known throughout the world for his efforts to promote the civil rights of the downtrodden, King was alternately deified and reviled by the very people he represented, but his dreams of liberty and equality for every person in this country were the catalyst for the great strides we've taken in the past 40 years. With Hall's courageous treatment of King and his story, audiences are reminded of the work that still needs to be done just as certainly as we learn about the real man behind the myth of King that has risen up since his untimely death at age 39.
As King and Camae get to know each other, we are privy to so much information that is at once emotionally draining, heartrendingly moving and uproariously funny. Perhaps this is where Hall, the writer, excels: As edifying as her play is, it also happens to be wonderfully human and ceaselessly funny in her interpretation. As Camae challenges King at every turn, her charming demeanor completely disarming him, we see the "man" emerge from his well-rehearsed public persona. Hall pulls no punches-nor does Camae-and as the story unfolds in its surprising way, you will gasp at the revelations. It's as stunning a theatrical event as you ever could have imagined.
2012 First Night Honoree Jackie Welch Schlicher's direction is focused, even while her vision for the piece matches Hall's writing with its sense of whimsy grounded by the realities of historical fact. The two-person, one act play never wavers in its journey from start to finish (and, oh Lord, what an ending you'll witness in this effective work of art) and Schlicher succeeds in keeping her two actors-the estimable Mary McCallum and Rashad "thaPoet" Rayford-on point, presenting characters who are winningly accessible instead of, particularly for Rayford, slavish in the depiction of a personage so revered as Dr. King.