‘The Mountaintop’ Portrays the Man Behind the Civil Rights Legend

It's Memphis, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has just delivered his now-famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of the city's Black sanitation workers, who are striking for higher pay and workplace treatment equal to their white counterparts. The civil rights leader would be shot on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray the next day.

Now the National Civil Rights Museum, the Lorraine Motel still stands preserved in downtown Memphis, its now-retro sign proclaiming “I Have a Dream” on the marquee. Playwright Katori Hall goes inside room 306 to imagine an encounter between King and a fictional chambermaid in her award-winning play “The Mountaintop.” Their conversation reveals a more human side of the civil rights leader – the man behind the legend.

The 2009 London premiere of “The Mountaintop” won an Olivier Award for Best New Play, and the following year Kenny Leon directed the Broadway production, starring Samuel L. Jackson in his Broadway debut and Angela Bassett. 

Directed by Giovanna Sardelli“The Mountaintop” opens tomorrow at Actors Theatre of Louisville and runs through October 27 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium. 

Sardelli says one of the strengths of Hall’s script is that audiences get to see a rare portrayal of King as a flawed, struggling man, not merely a myth. In his speech to the sanitation workers, he extolled the virtues of the nonviolent movement, but privately, Hall portrays him as ambivalent about its success. 

“His fear that violence would be the voice that would win, his fear that peace was not the order of the day, we get to see him wrestle with that, with the fact that he might have failed,” she says.

Actor Larry Powell, who plays King, has a big challenge in portraying such a well-known figure – he has to honor King’s memory and essence while playing the character as Hall wrote him, not as the actor knows him from history.

“I think it’s an incredibly challenging thing to do, to step into those shoes,” says SardelliBut one of the entire points of the play is that [King] has been so elevated to the level of mythology that people don’t think they can step into his shoes, but somebody better start trying.”

The maid, Camae, will be played by Dominique Morisseau, who worked with Hall to develop the character at New York's Lark Play Development Center but is only now playing the role in a professional production. But she might well have more opportunities soon. The drama has also proven popular in regional professional theaters like Actors Theatre, making Theatre Communication Group’s list of the most frequently-produced shows for the last two seasons. 

“She has this sassy maid come in who is so funny, and so wise in a way that is easily overlooked, engaging Dr. King in conversation, a highly educated man who's a preacher and who moves people through language,” Sardelli says. “That collision is where all of the drama comes from, and all of the humor.” 

This is the first production of “The Mountaintop” Sardelli has directed, though she and Hall also know each other through the Lark. Sardelli praises Hall's strong vision and skill in blending eloquence and common vernacular in the script. 

“I sat down to read the play, and every five pages I would go, oh my gosh, how did we get there? This is amazing,” she says. “The play kept changing and morphing, and how I felt about it kept changing and morphing, and I think that makes great theatre.” 

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