REVIEW | Actors Theatre Scales Unexpected Heights With ‘The Mountaintop’

With a legend comes tension, often between two camps: those who relish exposing their all-too-human flaws and those who need some things and people sacred. Because we long to feel closer to our heroes, but there’s no guarantee we’ll like what we see if we’re allowed too close. Playwright Katori Hall takes great pains to humanize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the top of her award-winning play “The Mountaintop,” depicting him as a flawed man who struggles with ego, vanity, self-doubt, fear and fidelity, but the play achieves a rare balance and takes equal care with King’s legacy, too.

That's just part of the equation, though. “The Mountaintop” is more than an empathetic investigation. Through its stunning use of theatrical language, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s production takes the audience on a journey from understanding to a place of dazzling, satisfying mystery.

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

The play’s 2009 premiere in London won an Olivier Award for Best New Play (on par with a Tony Award) and the play has been one of the most frequently-produced shows in American regional theatre for the last two seasons. Kenny Leon directed the Broadway run in 2011, which starred Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as the easy-going maid Camae who arrives with a cup of coffee and ends up changing King’s perspective on his life and his role in the Civil Rights movement.

“The Mountaintop” opens in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, hours after King (Larry Powell) delivered his historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers, and before he would be murdered the following day. He orders a cup of coffee from room service, delivered by maid Camae (Dominique Morisseaux). He’s out of cigarettes, she has a pack to share. First, she’s star-struck, but soon they’re flirting easily and debating the merits of the Civil Rights movements’ strategy of nonviolence. She challenges him, and he likes it.

Powell and Morisseaux both turn in riveting performances, and if the play stayed grounded in the relationship between King and Camae alone, it would be worth the time. But the story makes a big shift about halfway in, a shift that’s difficult to discuss without spoiling its impact. Camae isn’t entirely who she seems, and this play isn’t exactly what it appears to be, either.

Suffice to say that Camae is not in Room 306 by accident, nor is she, ultimately, an entirely welcome guest. But her presence forces King to confront his biggest fears – the constant threats on his life, the fear that nonviolence is holding the movement back and his reluctance to separate himself and his role from the movement at large – and Powell’s gradual disassembling of King’s public face is masterful.

For her part, Morisseaux is a force to be reckoned with – her Camae is charismatic, sure of her charms, a born leader born into a time and place not equipped to put her properly to work. She delivers her own sermon, standing on the motel bed in borrowed coat and shoes, that will stir a hallelujah from the most jaded soul.

But Camae has a bigger mission than swapping smokes and whiskey shots with King, and when that mission is revealed, the full force of the production’s design team swings into effect. Andrew Boyce’s set is first museum-quality preserved Lorrraine Motel room, and Anthony Mattana (sound) and Lap Li Chu (lighting) create a detail-perfect storm to rage outside. Mattana’s original music and media designer Phillip Allgeier’s visual effects build the play to a dizzying finish that’s capped off with a lovely moment of reckoning.

Again, to say more might dampen the effect of experiencing the story as it moves live from what we think we know to what we can only imagine. The whole live theatre package comes together in this production, creating an experience that can’t be faithfully replicated in any other medium. 

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