BWW Reviews: THE MOUNTAINTOP Puts a Cultural Icon in a New Light

A rainy Saturday evening in Chapel Hill was fitting for the opening night of PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of The Mountaintop, produced in partnership with Greensboro's Triad Stage. The play, written by Katori Hall, also takes place on a rainy evening - a fateful one: April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the night before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, and it follows the man through his final evening, which was spent in his hotel room. Hall mixes historical reality with playful conjecture to create a piece which is heartwarming and thought-provoking.

The Mountaintop follows Dr. King and his conversation with a hotel housekeeper, Camae, on the night before his untimely death. The two talk about topics ranging from choice of cigarettes to violent versus nonviolent forms of protest. As the night progresses and the conversation intensifies, it turns out that there's much more to Camae's story than she initially lets on. Her character quickly becomes the one with the upper hand, and the results are sure to make audiences pay attention.

There are only two characters in The Mountaintop. One is a beloved cultural icon of recent American history, and the other a creation of playwright Hall's imagination. The juxtaposition between very real and rather fantastical is an interesting imposition on a duo of actors. Under the direction of Raelle Myrick-Hodges, actors Cedric Mays and Lakisha May flourish in their very different roles. Their connection is palpable and special.

Cedric Mays's performance as the iconic civil rights leader is impressive and notable - he is not impersonating Dr. King, but simply and beautifully representing him on stage. This distance from the notion of impersonation is the key factor in creating a show which is relatable and worthwhile, and keeps the play from heading in the direction of commonplace nostalgia. As Mays is, in many ways, limited by the fact that his character is based on a real person - a real person who is still so familiar to Americans today - Lakisha May, as Camae, has a great deal of freedom in creating her role. She plays well off Mays's energy and presence, and comes into her own as the show progresses.

In the spirit of complete honesty and journalistic integrity, I must admit there were a few moments in the show which, for me, raised some initial skepticism. As details of the characters and the story unfolded, my usually-hidden inner cynic started asking questions like "how are they going to pull this off?" and "is this going to be believable?". Yet, somehow, those skeptical thoughts were gently and consistently pushed aside as the work unfolded. For taking an idea that could easily go awry and creating something meaningful and touching, the credit is due to the playwright, the actors, and the director.

The Mountaintop runs through October 6 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. It then moves to Greensboro, and will run at Triad stage from October 20 to November 10. For tickets and more information, visit www.playmakersrep.org or www.triadstage.org.

Photo Credit: Jon Gardiner


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