The Mountaintop

PlayMakers Repertory Company/ Triad Stage

Through Oct. 6 at UNC’s Paul Green Theatre

Oct. 20–Nov. 10 at Triad Stage in Greensboro

“Even Jesus wanted just a little more time
When he was walking Spanish down the hall”
Tom Waits

It’s one of the things you learn to look out for when reading a biography. Sooner or later, most authors want to rescue their subjects.

The motivation is understandable; usually it’s even humane. But when a rescue’s taking place in an accounting of a life, it’s usually important to determine what the writer believed was in need of rescue, and why. That’s one of the questions still haunting me after Saturday night’s premiere of The Mountaintop, playwright Katori Hall’s imaginative and controversial account of Martin Luther King’s last night alive.

The work is billed as the first co-production between PlayMakers Repertory and Greensboro’s Triad Stage, but as a creative endeavor it’s essentially a PlayMakers show. (After closing in Chapel Hill, it will play for four weeks in Greensboro.)

With its two queen beds draped in matching, worn burnt umber covers, Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set places us in a slightly seedy motel room from the early 1960s. At odds with this setting, however, is a series of dingy church signs hung along the set’s perimeter. It is late in the evening of April 3, 1968, and King (Cedric Mays) has returned to the Lorraine Motel. Earlier, he’d given the famous speech in support of a sanitation workers strike that gives Hall’s play its name.

While waiting for his close associate Ralph Abernathy to return from the store with a pack of Pall Malls, King calls for room service. But the maid, a tart young woman named Camae (Lakisha May), brings a lot more with her than just a coffee and the newspaper. She seems more sympathetic with the militant stance of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers than with King. And she knows a lot more about this lodger than she’s willing at first to admit.

The unlikely conversation that ensues provides King with a chance to look back and speak to what he believes to be his life’s achievements and failingswhich is more or less exactly what we’d anticipate from such a biographical work.

But this 90-minute one-act show attempts to deviate from expectations in a couple of ways. First, director Raelle Myrick-Hodges perhaps wisely has Mays downplay or eliminate altogether the earliest instances in Hall’s script of King’s carnal appetites, which would later be documented in books by Abernathy and biographer David Garrow. Still, by mid-show, Hall, Myrick-Hodges and Mays place us squarely in the presence of a prophet with body parts made of clay.

We’re witness to King’s vanity as well as vision. Though the work tries to expose us to his fears along with his faith, both seem problematicuntil a gripping final scene, that is.

The other deviation in Hall’s script has to do with Camae’s real identity and her agenda in the room, which involves a form of rescue. Without divulging plot turns, the salient issue is this: In altering one detail about the death of King, Hall seeks to make that event a bit less horrible than it was.

With all due respect, I am not convinced that this does her subjector her audienceany favors. King died a terrible death the following night after being shot through the throat by a .30-06 bullet. I regret I don’t trust the impulse, no matter how generousor sentimentalthat tries to smooth any edge of that world-changing event. If the horror of that moment is compromised in any way, I fear its meaning has been compromised as well.

This article appeared in print with the headline “About last night.”