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January 18, 2013

Katori Hall's play about MLK gets effective production from Center Stage

No matter how many times it is replayed, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Memphis, April 3, 1968, retains uncommon, chilling power. “Longevity has its place,” he said. “But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.”

In more ways than one, that sentiment haunts “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s provocative, fanciful play about King’s final hours in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel.

Since its modest Broadway run in 2011, the play has picked up steam. Several productions are slated around the country this season, including a satisfying one currently on the boards at Center Stage with a terrific cast.

It is easy to quibble with Hall’s concept, especially the turn in the plot that the press has been asked not to discuss, for the benefit of unsuspecting audiences.

Even before that point, however, ....

you may find yourself questioning the playwright’s effort to capture the human side of King, right down to the use of a toilet (offstage) and references to smelly feet.

The language (including the ‘N’ word), the smoking and, after a decidedly saucy maid name Camae answers his room service call, the flirting — they all take a layer off the varnish on the martyred civil rights leader. Of course, we all know that King was, like the rest of us, imperfect, but some of Hall’s methods to drive that point home can seem forced.

Speaking of forced, there are anachronistic, even deconstructionist turns along the way, including an effort to make King sound like an advocate for gay rights. I'm not sure that fits smoothly with the history of those days, when a remarkable figure early in the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin, was marginalized for being gay.

Sometimes, though, Hall’s use of hindsight pays off nicely. The mere mention of the name Jesse, as in Jackson, gets interesting laughs. And, in the play’s closing moments, a look at the view King did not live to see from his last mountaintop has undeniable force.

In the end, Hall’s most remarkable achievement may be the way she reveals the unvarnished King to be such an extremely engaging man.

He’s capable of humor and caprice (OK, the pillow fight scene may be a step too far). He’s incisive and sensitive. Asked by the maid to name one thing blacks and white have in common, he responds: “We scared, Camae. We all scared. Scared of each other. Scared of ourselves.”

He is aware of his limitations, and even more painfully aware of his the potential he wants to fulfill.

The Center Stage production gains considerably from Shawn Hamilton’s portrayal of King. He’s an arresting presence from the first moments — pacing the room, checking the phone for bugging, trying out a few lines from a new next speech, flinching at the sound of thunderclaps.

The actor does not lay on a thick impersonation, but lets his ability to conjure the Reverend sneak up on you. When Hamilton finally lets loose with oratory, the sound and cadence of his delivery have an uncanny ring.

Myxolydia Tyler jumps into the role of Camae with hips blazing and deep-fried Southern accent drippin’. The sexy banter and sexier moves recall Flip Wilson’s Geraldine character a little too often, but Tyler ultimately wins you over.

Camae’s irreverently funny side is a key element in the play, and Tyler makes it register. But as the maid reveals her back story — “I’m betta at cleanin’ up other folks’ messes than my own,” Camae admits — the actress is just as keenly attentive to tone and nuance.

Kwame Kwei-Armah directs the staging with a steady hand, attentive to mood and momentum. Neil Patel’s spot-on set is evocatively lit by Scott Zielinski.

“The Mountaintop” is not the last word on King, but it makes a thoughtful, daring attempt to wrestle with his personality, his death, his legacy.

The only difference between the saint and the sinner, Oscar Wilde observed, is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Hall’s ability to illuminate both sides of that coin makes for intriguing theater.

The production runs through Feb. 24.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:07 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens
        

Comments

Play is absolute crap. With the lmited talent of a high school student, the author insults the audience (unknowingly) with a silly premise and a play that has no point. Your review is especially kind to Center Stage---but I wish you had warned more literal-oriented people to avoid drivel that has no point. Kwame's direction is no better than that of a 1940s convention of having actors ignore the fourth wall of this tiny room and just pace back and forth unmotivated, except to play to the audience. Maybe if they played to each other instead of the audience, it might have been a bit more bearable. (Your review has an excellent point about Bayard Rustin being pushed away by King and his men instead of cannonizing King as a gay rights beliver.)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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