BWW Reviews: The Alley's THE MOUNTAINTOP is Powerful and Provocative
With DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day just around the corner, The Alley is producing Katori Hall's play THE MOUNTAINTOP. The play premiered in London in 2009 to critical acclaim. It opened in New York on Broadway in October 2011 with Samuel L. Jackson as DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett opposite him. Reviews in New York were mixed, but the show sold well and even recouped its initial investment during its final weekend in January 2012.
Katori Hall's play is a vivid and alluring re-imagination of Dr. King's final night on earth. The play takes place in and around room 306 of Memphis' Lorraine Motel. The audience sees Dr. King as a man, not a saint or deity. She explains that "it is not the 'I have a dream' King. It's a King that is radical." From the opening of the play, we see an exhausted and overwrought man working hard to make a difference in the world. When the beautiful and seductive maid enters his room to deliver a cup of coffee, King is tempted and even seduced by the woman. Within minutes of entering his room, it becomes abundantly clear that Carrie Mae, or Camae, as she likes to be called, is more than she appears. She speaks with Dr. King and helps him to confront his fate.
Robert O'Hara directs the tense and taught drama with magnificent skill. Early in the second half of the show, Camae makes a revelation to Dr. King and the audience alike that is a surprising tonal shift in the piece. The way it is scripted, this revelation is jarring and even confounding; however, Robert O'Hara's solid direction keeps the audience engaged and entranced to the point that we can easily accept the change and continue to follow the powerful and provocative show. Moreover, Robert O'Hara's brilliant cast of two is dynamic and altogether impressive in their visceral, gritty, and even raw characterizations. You've never seen a DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. quite like this, but you'll love the experience of seeing the fallible and entirely human man behind the myth, behind the martyr, behind the saint. Lastly, his cast has an electrifying chemistry that takes the play and audience to soaring heights.
The only faults I found in Robert O'Hara's direction were when the cast sat on the downstage left bench with their back turned toward where I was sitting; I had a hard time hearing their words when they were seated there. Also, when discussing Malcom X, the characters run outside of the room onto the balcony, which causes the set to spin so the audience can see their action on the balcony. Seated in the right side of the auditorium, by the time the set had spun to where I could see the balcony they were back at the doorway talking. Thus, the spinning of the set felt more like a gimmick to remind the audience that the set could spin since we had not seen it move since the beginning of the show. With that said, arrive early so you can see a brooding and harried Dr. King to pace back and forth on the balcony and in and out of room 306 in view of the audience. This fantastic preshow technique, complete with the sound effect of falling rain and cars driving by, was cleverly utilized to help set the tone of the show.
Starring as DR. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bowman Wright delivers an exhilarating performance. With the help of Katori Hall's script, he brilliantly humanizes while entirely respecting Dr. King. Bowman Wright's performance is as pristine as it is powerful and motivating. He brings unconditional and fascinating life into a celebrated figure from history and makes him realistic, believable, and inspiringly flawed. As the audience, we see a character that is so much like ourselves on so many different levels that we cannot help but wonder if one of us will be as great a person as Dr. King. Bowman Wright fully understands his character's emotional arc and vacillates between being adroitly reserved and devastatingly explosive in all the right moments.
Co-starring as Camae, Joaquina Kalukango brings a palpable life and energy to her fiery and fierce character. She earns peals of laughter from the audience as easily as she earns their affection. Joaquina Kalukango's Camae is filled with vivacious personality, a sharp tongue, and extraordinary wit. Also, she deftly drops thematic one-liners, making sure the shows themes are vibrantly brought to the audience's attention. Her "Civil Rights will kill you before these Pall Mall's will" and her repeated "Speak by love, die by hate" still rings with emotionally charged resonance in my mind. She expertly conquers the tonal shift brought about by her character's revelation, keeping the audience invested in her performance and the show itself. As if she had not blown audiences away enough, her monologue before the epilogue is remarkable and dexterously delivered. Everything about Joaquina Kalukango's Camae is radiant and brilliant, showcasing a talent for striking and stunning performances that will be worth following. Hopefully, she'll return to The Alley, or even Houston, and share her gift more in the future.
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