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BWW Review: THE MOUNTAINTOP at NextStop Theatre

BWW Review: THE MOUNTAINTOP at NextStop Theatre

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of many hats. He was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a preacher. He was a father and a husband to Coretta Scott King. When we listen or read his speeches, we are moved and inspired. We never stop to think about King outside of his role as a Civil Rights leader. Who is the man behind these speeches? The Mountaintop, written by Katori Hall, depicts King differently. We are used to seeing images of King delivering eloquent speeches in front of large audiences. Instead, Hall takes away the divide of the podium and shows King's more vulnerable side. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Curtis McNeil) returns to his room at the Lorraine Motel after giving his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. An exhausted King orders coffee and begins to work on his next speech. When Camae (Shayla Simmons), brings King his coffee, King asks her to stay. Camae and King converse fears and anxieties. In NextStop Theatre's production of The Mountaintop, directed by Kevin McAllister, McNeil and Simmons are talented actors, but the play itself still needs to be polished.

McNeil plays the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. well. The way he speaks and delivers words evoke how the real life King's spoke. McNeil's depiction of King is also strongest when he expresses his fears, anxieties, and desires. McNeil's MLK is charismatic with Camae as he asks her for cigarettes. He mulls over what the media thinks of him and worries about being followed by "spooks." As he works on his new sermon, he walks around his hotel room as he struggles to find the right words. One of McNeil's most powerful scenes as King features him speaking to Simmons' Camae about how he brought his wife artificial flowers instead of fresh flowers before he went to Memphis. It's heart wrenching to watch him realize that he wouldn't be able to fix his mistake as his cruel destiny is waiting for him. In another standout scene, McNeil's MLK talks about how a march quickly turned into a riot and how he believes in peaceful protest. Simmons is spot on casting for the role of Camae. She provides a comedic foil to McNeil's serious King. But, Simmons most impactful acting moment comes a serious moment involving Camae's background story. Her story is powerful and one that isn't easily forgotten.

While Simmons and McNeil are great actors, it is apparent that the play itself still needs work. The play makes an abrupt transition from realistic to surreal without giving any red herrings to hint at the possibility that Camae may not be who she really is. There are parts in which King says things which conflict with the real MLK's beliefs. At the beginning of the play, King is working on a speech which starts with the words, "Why is America Going to Hell?" The actual title of King's last sermon was "Why America May Go to Hell?" While this play is fiction, it shouldn't twist MLK's words to the point where it doesn't sound like him anymore. His words are powerful so they should be preserved to keep their original meaning. It would have been powerful to hear more of King's actual speeches quoted throughout the play. There is a future montage which ends with a portrait of Obama and this makes it seem outdated as there has been a lot of activism after the Obama administration. After all, they are the ones are being passed the "baton."

Script aside - NextStop Theatre's production of The Mountaintop features a unique stage configuration by Evan Hoffmann which allows for audience members to sit closer to the stage. There are a lot of set details that make it feel like a real motel such as worn down chair or the card on the back of the door. The lighting, designed by Lynn Joslin, and sound, designed by Yaritza Pacheco, creates a storm atmosphere well for the play.

Even though the play's script needs work, it is worthwhile to see The Mountaintop to be able to witness a different side of Martin Luther King, Jr. grace the stage.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Photo caption and credit: Curtis McNeil and Shayla Simmons in "The Mountaintop" at NextStop Theatre Company. Photo by Lock and Company.

THE MOUNTAINTOP runs at NextStop Theatre - 269 Sunset Park Dr, Herndon, VA 20170 - until February 2, 2020. A special performance will be done on MLK Day. Tickets can be purchased online.

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