The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s humanistic portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is on stage at the CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore through Feb. 24 and offers a rare glimpse of King as an ordinary, simple man with flaws.
Featuring Shawn Hamilton as King, the play portrays the civil rights leader on the last night of his life after giving his famous I’ve Been to the Mountaintop sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis. He has an imaginary meeting with a maid, Camae, played feistily by actress Myxolydia Tyler.
Written by Hall, a Memphis native when she was in her early 20,s, the play shows a side of the mythic King that rarely came into public view. In the production, the Nobel Peace Prize winner smokes Pall Malls, cusses, and is terrified at the sound of thunder. He also is becoming more progressive in his philosophy and thinking,
Hall humanizes the icon even more, portraying him as a man who has no problem with telling little white lies to his wife, has smelly feet, and who can flirt with the best of them.
Still, there is balance in the portrayal as we see King as the father who tucks his children into bed over the phone, worries over a boy shot dead in an unjust encounter and who is quick to anger when the name of God is used in a disrespectful way. To his credit, Hamilton pulls off the complexity of King with ease, capturing King’s mannerisms and speech pattern in a style that is dead on.
The action commences when an exhausted and half-sick King orders coffee by way of room service. The newly hired maid breezes in and the action notches up quickly from that point. King is the epitome of cool to the maid’s fiery personality which is punctuated by outbursts of uncontrollable, foul language. Camae smokes like a man, carries a liquor flask, and later, in one of the more hilarious moments in the play, portrays King as a kick-butt, take- no- prisoners revolutionary.
While the two seem miles apart in social status, Hall wonderfully shows the oneness of their thinking as King and Camae weigh in on subjects ranging from Malcolm X to Vietnam. Throughout the play, there is edginess and sensuality as the two flirts back and forth, keeping the audience wondering if the minister is going to cross the line.
The weight of the responsibility that King carries, however, is never lost on the audience. Hamilton beautifully portrays King’s fears, doubts and steely resolve. There is a plot twist that will take many by surprise. It seems a bit far-fetched, but that seemed to not dim the interest of the opening night audience.
For some, like Annette Burton, a Baltimore actress,”I thought the play was excellent, and very well acted. I also like the way the play brought you up through time and had Marti rise up and see a changed world. It was like Moses. He was going to get to the Promised Land, but he would set things into motion so that others would. When I saw Obama’s name, I was crying at the end.”
Tickets for The Mountaintop can be ordered at www.centerstage.org/mountaintop or by calling 410 332-0033.