A sexy young maid’s late-night visit to a preacher’s Memphis motel room provokes unexpected consequences in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. That the preacher in question is Dr. Martin Luther King on the last night of his life is just one reason audiences should be lining up to catch the Olivier Award Winning Best New Play of 2009’s long-awaited Los Angeles Premiere at the Matrix.
The mountaintop in question is the one Dr. King had referred to in his last speech, delivered the day before being assassinated just outside the motel room in which The Mountaintop takes place. “I’ve seen the Promised Land,” proclaimed King before adding, prophetically, “I may not get there with you.”
Playwright Hall imagines a situation in which King might actually have foreseen his impending death, though not before giving us time to get to know the iconic civil rights leader, warts and all, as he shares Pall Malls and whiskey-spiked coffee with the sassy, sultry Camae, who soon enough has the married minister feeling all hot and bothered (and not in a bad way).
King asks Camae for advice about shaving his mustache, tells her she’s pretty both in words and “witcho eyes,” and listens to her tips on smoking “like it’s going out of style, like you need, it, like you want it.”
Camae dons King’s jacket and footwear and shows him the kind of speech she’d make if she were indeed in his shoes: “The white man ain’t got nothin’ I want. Fuck the white man! I say, fuck’em!”
There’s serious talk as well, about Malcolm X, shot dead at 39, the age King is now, and about God, whom feminist Camae insists is a “she.” (“She told me. She like you. That if you was in heaven, you’d be her husband.”)
And then The Mountaintop takes an unanticipated detour, one that I won’t even hint at, except to say that for those willing to take playwright Hall’s leap of faith, the results will prove powerful indeed.
To bring The Mountaintop to the Matrix Theatre stage, producer Joseph Stern has reunited director Roger Guenveur Smith and actors Larry Bates and Danielle Truitt from Hall’s play’s 2013 West Coast Premiere at San Diego Rep, resulting in some exciting staging choices and above all in a pair of absolutely thrilling performances.
The always superb Bates does some of his finest work to date, eschewing imitation to get to the heart of the man and not the saint that legend has made him. As for his costar, the stunning Truitt ignites the stage from her first entrance, combining beauty, acting chops, sex-appeal, bravery, and that indefinable something they call star quality.
Director Smith and his design team have made a number of deliberate artistic choices not in Hall’s original script.
Scenic designer John Iacovelli forgoes a more literal depiction of King’s motel room for one that features only a few pieces of furniture (a 1960s TV console and queen-sized mattress chief among them) backed by a white brick wall, and though several physical props do get used (a rotary phone, a Pall Mall pack, a lighter, a small flask), others are mimed (a rain-soaked newspaper, coffee cups, coffee, cigarettes).
As for Camae’s uniform, the sexy, clingy black one that Anastasia Pautova has designed seems more like one she’d wear to a costume party than for clean-up duty at a low-end motel.
Still, curious as these choices may initially appear to be, they end up making absolute dramatic sense as you will see.
Jose Lopez’s striking lighting design and Marc Anthony Thompson’s dramatic sound and projection design (in particular a dazzling climactic video montage) are as good as it gets.
Jennifer Palumbo is production stage manager. Donna Walker is associate producer. Bruce Dickinson and Ina Shumaker are propmasters.
It’s taken nearly seven years for The Mountaintop to make it from London to Broadway to San Diego to L.A., but as the saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.” In the case of The Mountaintop, “good” doesn’t begin to describe it.
The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.
February 15, 2016
Photos: I C Rapoport