I was curious to see how Katori Hall and Fio would execute a piece of theatre with Martin Luther King Jr. at the front and centre. How can you successfully honour a man like Luther King without bordering on the syrupy and sentimental – and how do you cast light on the many human flaws and weaknesses that all of us (even the greatest) have without dishonouring the memory of a one of the greatest leaders of our time?
I must confess, having seen Cape Town’s Opera’s Mandela Trilogy in Cardiff when it was playing, I kept wondering during all the jubilant celebrations about his human flaws too – rightly or wrongly. It’s a really tall order for theatre-makers and they have to tread so carefully. Separating the man from the legend is an uphill struggle, I’m sure.
Essentially, it’s hard to summon up the true spirit of a real person when you only focus on the greatness. Human foibles are what make us real – and Luther King wasn’t without his moments of weakness. It is these things that make the difference between gushing tributes and a bold and honest look at such a recognisable and enigmatic man as Martin Luther King Jr.
‘The Mountaintop’ transports us back to Room 306 at The Lorraine Motel in Memphis during Luther King’s final hours on the fateful day of his execution in 1968. Dr King has been canvassing for support for the rights of sanitation workers Tennessee. He is tired and paranoid and restless. We see him scan his room for bugs from the FBI.
Played convincingly by Mensah Bediako, we watch as Luther King strikes up a passing friendship with hotel maid Camae, played by RWCMD graduate Alexandria Riley. The interplay between the two is wonderful. Camae’s playful and frank observations about America’s race neuroses provide many moments on light relief and Riley beautifully plays the part of a woman with an incredible voice and something to say – challenging Luther King’s assumptions and observations with wit and panache. The friction and tension between the two is real – but why is she here and who is she?
There’s an underlying hint (and our own assumptions lead us to believe at first) that there’s a romantic motive for Luther King wanting Camae to stay with him. We know he is waiting for something…something even he’s not sure of. The stormy thunder, projections and lighting courtesy of lighting designer Jane Lalljee and Video Designer Zakk Huein produce a nerve-wracking tension and quiet energy to the piece, leading up to the final crescendo of Luther King’s last rallying cry. The final sequence and soundtrack by Dan Lawrence is a thing of beauty.
The Mountaintop reminds us that although it may be more than 40 years since Luther King was assassinated, the fear, ugliness, the sheer wilful ignorance and blindness of the human species is as powerful as ever. The vote for Brexit, the re-emergence and emboldening of right wing political parties across Europe…and now here we are at the precipice of doom, hoping that America votes with it’s head in October. Ugliness still prevails. Luther King’s opening line ‘America’s going to hell!’ is as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1968. Have we even moved on, really?
Luther King is tortured by the death of Larry Payne – a 16 year old teenager killed during a sanitation worker march, a few days before his own death. ‘I will never forget that name’ Luther King says. But Larry Payne’s death has now been surpassed by so many other senseless deaths – Rodney King, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. Unarmed black men killed by so-called protectors of peace. How can we prevail when we are governed by the politics of fear?
And yet…and YET, as this stunning play reminds us – positivism and hope somehow remains. In the moments of darkness, there is light. We must fight back We must endure and go on. The Occupy protests, The Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement all serve to remind us – we’re still here, we’re hopeful. Maya Angelou’s words are ringing in our ears and are hinted at in the heart of this production: ‘You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I rise’.
This is the kind of powerful theatre that will evoke a raw and visceral reaction – and there are plenty of these moments, leaving your heart fit to burst and your belly doing flips. Riley’s fiery speech (wearing the suit and shoes of Luther King), the absolutely phenomenal segment where Camae and Dr King look to the future and catch glimpses of the wonders and the ugliness yet to come as well as Bediako’s final rallying cry, standing on that pulpit.
The powerful and emotional reaction you will no doubt encounter watching ‘The Mountaintop’ really is testament to Katori Hall’s incredible script. This is theatre that will pack a punch, leaving you sweating, crying and completely rung out. There are no other words to say than ‘Wow.’
Type of show: Theatre
Title: The Mountaintop
Venue: The Other Room, Porters (Cardiff)
Dates: 04 October – 15 October, PN 5th October
Writer: Katori Hall
Director: Abdul Shayek
Producer: Shane Nickels
Stage Manager: Katie Bingham
Lighting Designer: Jane Lalljee
Sound Designer: Dan Lawrence
Video Designer: Zakk Hein
Cast: Mensah Bediako & Alexandria Riley
Running time: 1hr
Produced by Fio in association with UWTSD, NTW, No Fit State, Theatre Royal Stratford East, WMC, UCAN.