BWW Review: THE MOUNTAINTOP Imagines Meeting the Real Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
How often have you wondered what it would be like to go back in time and talk to an historical icon? Katori Hall's THE MOUNTAINTOP is a gripping and often humorous re-imagining of events the night before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that won London's 2010 Olivier Award for best new play. It's one of the best ways imaginable to honor Dr. King, Black History Month and the Black Lives Matter movement by experiencing its Los Angeles premiere at the Matrix Theatre, directed by Obie Award-winner Roger Guenveur Smith and starring Larry Bates and Danielle Truitt. I cannot imagine any two actors more suited to step into the shoes of these two characters, having worked together in a previous production of the play at San Diego Rep, also directed by Smith.The play imagines what thoughts and emotions might have pulsed through the mind and heart of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968, his last night alive. It begins as an exhausted Dr. King retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after delivering his magnificent "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. As a storm rages outside and in Dr. King's soul, a mysterious hotel maid brings him a cup of coffee, prompting King to confront his life, his past, his legacy and the plight and future of the American people. Many moments of his life, as well as what is in store for the future, are shown on both the hotel room's television set and the bedroom wall which transforms into a mind-grabbing viewing screen thanks to John Iacovelli's scenic design, Jose Lopez's lighting design, with sound and projections designed by Marc Anthony Thompson. "It was really important for me to show the human side of King," noted playwright Hall in an interview. "During this time, he was dealing with the heightened threat of violence, he was tackling issues beyond civil rights - economic issues - and was denouncing the Vietnam War. So I wanted to explore the emotional toll and the stress of that. King changed the world, but he was not a deity. He was a man, a human being like me and you. So it was important to show him as such: vulnerable."
The riveting 90-minute production moves along at a quick pace with Bates and Truitt flirting wildly as they get to know one another. We see two sinners doing their best to be saints amid the temptation to fail miserably. When Dr. King catches on that Camae is not exactly just a foul-mouthed hotel maid, he winds up opening his mind to the possibility she was sent to deliver a message that frightens as well as enlightens him. Bates and Truitt are magnificent in the roles, so much so that you will walk away feeling as if you really just met the real Dr. King and the wiliest of spirits to ever cross his path."As a post-civil-rights baby, I'm very cognizant of the great responsibility that has been passed down to me, but I can also look through the lens of history in a different way," she told the Los Angeles Times. "It allows me to be a little more clinical, more honest, sometimes a little irreverent while treating the subject matter with utmost respect."
And that she does with Dr. King shown not only as a god-fearing minister but also a chain-smoking man who knows how to kick his libido into high gear as well as succumb to his deepest fears. It's no wonder when an attractive and super sexy maid walks into his room that his focus switches from worrying about what he will say to his followers the next day, thus allowing us to see him as "just a man" who knows how to reach for his dreams by turning on the charm. Bates maintains the posture and deeply spiritual nature of Dr. King from start to finish, no matter what comes his way.In 2009, following more than three decades of producing multiple award-winning work for the stage, Matrix Theatre Company founder/artistic director Joseph Stern resolved to redirect the company's focus to the exploration of race issues in contemporary society. Thus he certainly was the right person to step in to the role of producer of THE MOUNTAINTOP. It is easy to forget how different society was in 1968, the year the play takes place, with civil unrest pushing the boundaries of society's beliefs about itself. Dr. King's push for non-violent reform was challenged, often via violent means. Many of these eye-opening issues are firmly addressed in Hall's play, especially during each of the character's soul-searching monologues.THE MOUNTAINTOP continues through April 10 with performances scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm; and Mondays at 8 p.m. (dark March 7 and March 21). All tickets are $30.00, except Mondays which are Pay-What-You-Can. The Matrix Theatre is located at 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046 (west of Stanley Ave., between Fairfax and La Brea). For reservations and information, call 323-852-1445 or go to www.matrixtheatre.com.
On Sunday, April 3 (the anniversary of the night prior to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when the play takes place) and Monday, April 4 (the anniversary of the assassination), a panel discussion with special guests will take place following each of the performances.