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BWW Interviews: Neal Ghant, Cynthia D. Barker of THE MOUNTAINTOP at Aurora Theatre

Now, is the time for this.

As we enter into a new year, with a new incoming Commander-in-Chief, while also celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on MLK Day, THE MOUNTAINTOP could not come at a more perfect time and shed a more beautiful light.

Being shown at the Aurora Theatre, THE MOUNTAINTOP is a play by American playwright Katori Hall. It is a fictional depiction an interaction between Civil Rights legend, DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Neal Ghant), and a fictional maid, Camae (Cynthia D. Barker), on Dr. King's last night on earth. Directed by Eric J. Little, the play is set entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the eve of Dr. King's assassination in 1968.

I had the chance to speak with actors Neal Ghant and Cynthia D. Barker about this remarkable production:

Broadway World: I'm sure everyone is familiar with the life and legacy of DR. Martin Luther King, Jr., but could you tell me what impact his legacy has had on your life personally?

Neal Ghant: He's influenced me personally with his drive and his heart and his desire to bring about change in this country. It's something that I often seek to do in the work that I have the pleasure of doing. Some of my earliest theatre work was in the vain of revolutionary theatre, where we spoke about child abuse in America, or even drug abuse in America and Black kids in inner city schools killing each other. That's where I got my roots in theatre from, so the words he's [DR. Martin Luther King, Jr.] spoken in the past have always been true in my life as a focal point for just treating everyone a particular way. My personal views are that all men are created equal and that we should respect and honor one another. I think [DR. Martin Luther King, Jr.] fought really hard to make that a reality.

Cynthia D. Barker: I had to think about that for the show: what does Dr. King mean to me? And, I just think about his legacy of love. Fierce, radical love. It acknowledges that people are different. It acknowledges that we have opposing ideologies. The goal is to recognize that we have a common goal-that each of us wants our basic human rights. [We want] our basic human needs. The goal is how do we do that without disrespecting, degrading, or overlooking other people. That is what I take from Dr. King's legacy.

BWW: Neal, what was it like portraying such an iconic person, such as DR. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

NG: Outside of just the standard techniques as an actor, to try to remain true and honest to whatever character you're creating, it was a real benefit to have historical documents to help me along the journey. But, to be honest with you, I was a bit concerned earlier on. I wanted to do a good job and represent him properly. So, I worked very hard to get a sense of him as a man and to be truthful, and honest, to his beliefs. If I'm channeling those ideas, then I think I'm doing him justice.

BWW: What was the most gratifying part about being a part of this production?

NG: [The most gratifying part was] just to have an opportunity to step into his shoes. As an actor, it's kind of one of those roles that you want to sink your teeth into. When you're on stage with other fantastic performers, like Cynthia [D. Barker], it really brings things home for me. I've always admired Dr. King's work, so going forward in this day and age,in 2017, with all of the racial tensions and turmoils that still plague this country, I think it's important that [his work] be remembered and reverenced. If I can do that by portraying him, then all the better.

CDB: I saw Camae performed about maybe five years ago. I fell in love with the character because I had never seen such a multi-dimensional Black woman on stage. I know people say, 'It is an honor' all of the time, but it is really an honor for me to be able to give this woman life. She has so many colors, so many layers, so many complexities, and I really do feel privileged to do my best to give a voice for the Camaes of the world and the people who will recognize her as a mother, a sister, or an aunt. I do not take that lightly. And also, to be doing this at this time, with the climate of the world. It's January-we have an [upcoming] Inauguration, we had [President Barack Obama's] Farewell Address, and the climate is charged. So to be telling this story and to be a part of this discussion, using art to help lead this discussion, and to additionally be doing this with my brothers, Neal [Ghant] and [Director] Eric [J. Little], it really is a dream role for me.

BWW: Neal, how have you grown, as an actor, by portraying Dr. King? What was the most challenging thing you've had to overcome as an actor in this play?

NG: Mostly his speech. He had a very unique voice. I wanted to get his speech down, his patterns down. He had a deep Southern drawl to the way he spoke, but when it came to the speeches and standing in front of congregations and assemblies, this really robust and large preacher shows up, as well. He seemed to be a rather unassuming man. So, getting an opportunity to do that, properly, was certainly something I was concerned about early on. Now that I've had the opportunity to get a few weeks of rehearsal in and we've been in front of a few audiences, I think everything it is coming around.

BWW: Cynthia, what was the most challenging thing about portraying Camae? How have you grown as an actor by portraying her?

CDB: The challenge that I am having now, with Camae, is that she is really funny. [Playwright] Katori [Hall] has given her zinger after zinger. But, what I want to be able to do is to make sure people will be able to hear what she is saying. She says some really revolutionary things and I understand why Katori has given her such humor because if she just stood flat-footed and said the things she says, people would be turned off by her. That's the curse of being a woman-you cannot boldly speak about what you think about the world. Particularly talking about the things that Camae is talking about and still be respected.

BWW: I understand. Women are basically taught to be nice and quiet.

CDB: Absolutely! And, Camae is unapologetic. She is candid and that's the challenge for me-to nail the comedy, but to also make sure people are still hearing the significance of what she is saying. She's affected me as an actor because she gives me the opportunity to be so free on stage and I've never had that before. She's freeing me as a person. Camae is unapologetic. She does not subscribe to respectability politics. She does not hold shift being in a room with Dr. King. She still uses Black vernacular. She isn't necessarily grammatically correct in a traditional sense. It is so wonderful for me to have this freedom. I was always taught to be a verbal chameleon. I had to be with my cousins on the east side of Detroit, then I had to go to school with White people, but with Camae, she is just Camae. She is Camae all of the time and it's both liberating on and off stage to just...be.

BWW: Cynthia, what would you like the audience to take away from THE MOUNTAINTOP? Particularly little girls who are taught to only be nice, sweet, and quiet, as well as girls of color?

CDB: I don't want to give away too much of the show, but I'll start here: I think Katori's overriding message by depicting Dr. King as The Man, which we see is flawed and fearful and frustrated, is challenging us and charging us that in spite of our humanity and our style ability, that we are still responsible for writing and creating the history of this world. That starts with assessing our responsibilities in our own homes and communities. Katori takes away our excuses. You're not too old, too rich, too poor. In spite of all of that, we are all capable of greatness. I would say the same thing to young Black girls. Camae has one heck of a mission. She feels unworthy of the mission because of her own judgment but, she finds the God in herself and just said, "Yes" to the calling. I have to do that all of the time. There are times when I am afraid and I look at something and I think, "This is too big for me. I'm not worthy. I'm not good enough," but if something comes your way, and if the Higher Power, or spirit, or whomever you believe in, puts it in your path, then your job is say, "Yes," and to trust.

BWW: Speaking of audiences, Neal, what would you like the audience to take away from THE MOUNTAINTOP?

NG: That we still have a ways to go. The dreams and ideals that DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. set before this country are still out there. There still yet to be realized. We've come a long way, but there are still some things that need to be handled. There are still some divides between racial lines, there are still divides between economic lines, and social structures are still in power, whether it's for the good of mankind, or not. I hope that young people specifically, can take from [The Mountaintop] that the baton still needs to be carried. Anyone can do it. Anyone can carry the baton of justice and peace and righteousness. You don't need a leader or someone to follow behind anymore. We all have the capability to make a change in our community.

BWW: If you could describe THE MOUNTAINTOP in three words, what would they be?

NG: Peace, love, and justice.

CDB: Revolutionary, challenging, and unconventional.

THE MOUNTAINTOP will be running January 12-February 12, 2017. Performances will be Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 P.M. and Saturday & Sunday at 2:30 P.M. Tickets range from $20-$55, with a Wednesday Discount Matinee on February 1 at 10:00 A.M. Those ticket prices start at $16.


For more information, You May Go to the Aurora Theatre's website at http://www.auroratheatre.com/on-stage/2016-17-signature-series/the-mountaintop/ or call the Box Office at 678.226.6222.

Photo Credit: Aurora Theatre



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