BWW Review: L.A. Theatre Works's THE MOUNTAINTOP Climbs to New Heights at George Mason University
"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop... And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that statement almost exactly 50 years ago on April 3, 1968. His words, a confident assessment on the future of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, echo with the same power as when he bellowed them all those years ago. Dr. King never made it to the promised land, having been assassinated only one day after his "Mountaintop" speech. His spirit, however, lives on beautifully in Katori Hall's play The Mountaintop at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday, April 14 as part of Los Angeles Theatre Works's 38-city touring production.
L.A. Theatre Works (LATW) brings Ms. Hall's play to life as a "live-in-performance" radio drama. For three decades, LATW has been the leading radio theater company in the United States, using innovative technologies to preserve dramatic works and bring live theater to millions of homes. Presenting The Mountaintop as a radio play allows the script to stand on its own in ways a fully-staged version is unable to accomplish. This presents a unique series of challenges to keep the audience engaged throughout--something this production is thankfully able to accomplish.
The Mountaintop is a simple thought-experiment exploring the final hours of Martin Luther King's life. Set moments after his famous "Mountaintop" address, Dr. King (Gilbert Glenn Brown) withdraws to his Memphis motel room. After calling for a cup of coffee, he is greeted by Camae (Karen Malina White), a foul-mouthed and highly opinionated maid who is starstruck by serving the famous Civil Rights leader on her first day. Over the subsequent eighty minutes, the two explore their conflicting opinions on protest, religion, morality, and mortality.
This drama, firmly planted in reality, infuses itself with magical realism about halfway through and, while I will avoid spoilers, the analysis of Dr. King's legacy becomes more interesting through this new lens which Ms. Hall provides. While the shift between genres can feel jarring, the payoff at the end is worth the minor slog to get there. For works like this, laced with social and political commentary, it is okay for the plot to become bogged down because there are almost always new issues for the audience to analyze. In addition to Dr. King's personal highs and lows, the play touches on racial tensions within the black community and the role of women in political protests. Each newly introduced topic is discussed with equal importance and never overstays its welcome.
Gilbert Glenn Brown (CBS TV's The Inspectors) is gripping as Dr. King. Sure, he lacks some necessary fire at the beginning of the production, but after ten minutes or so, he develops a groove which perfectly captures the energy of the late Dr. King. With only a few words, he can conjure just as much passion from the maid in his hotel room as he can from a crowd of thousands.
A graduate of Howard University, Karen Malina White (The Cosby Show, A Different World) returns to the D.C. area to provide the necessary fire for countering Mr. Brown's MLK. Camae grows much more than Dr. King during the evening, making watching her character a little more interesting. It helps that Ms. Hall has creative freedom to write more a non-historical figure like Camae. Either way, the maid's trademark twang makes her cutting criticisms of Dr. King's movement sound more like backhanded compliments than full-blown insults, bringing an unexpected complexity to her. When Ms. White takes MLK's jacket and shoes to begin espousing her own version of his sermons, The Mountaintop really finds its stride. D.C. is lucky to have brought Ms. White back for this production.
Shirley Jo Finney provides a deft touch to this semi-staged production, making good use of space despite being confined to three pairs of microphones spread across the stage. This type of performance, however, requires such strict precision that some actions can feel over-the-top. Opening the motel room door, for instance, requires excessive effort with such a broad swing of the actor's hand. One wonders if the same effect couldn't be achieved if the movements were dialed down just a bit.
The technical team supporting Ms. Finney does admirable work as well. Sound design by Mark Holden ensures each of the microphones is properly calibrated to pick up even the tiniest of sounds from Mr. Brown and Ms. White. David Ionazzi dutifully creates a simple lighting structure that draws your attention to each of the various microphone set-ups when the time comes. Carin Jacobs's costumes are multi-purpose period pieces allowing for ease of movement.
Scenic design, unfortunately, is where The Mountaintop struggles. Rich Rose does a fine job with the physical items on stage but falters when it comes to projections on the single white scrim placed center stage. Regularly, close-up images of people's faces moving in slow motion fill the scrim and jerk audience members out of the action. When Camae lights up a cigarette, she does so as another woman is projected onto the screen. Action continues as the projected woman sensually smokes her cigarette. Given that this projected person is thrice as large as either actor on stage, it is easy for the projections to draw away focus. Such distracting visuals don't seem justified by the rest of the production.
As theater continually struggles to find ways to overcome historical problems of access, organizations like LATW will prove ever more important. With hundreds of plays in its online archives, this company provides a way to bring theater into your home for a fraction of the cost. Few experiences can beat a night out at the theater. But if all of LATW's performances are as powerful as the one delivered on Saturday night at George Mason University, this may just be the next best thing.
Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.
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