There is something incredibly sad about the fact that The Mountaintop is one of a rare number of plays in Wales featuring an all-black cast. Its director, Abdul Shayek, laments as much: “It is 2017 and the fact that this hasn’t happened more often makes me frustrated and sad”. There should be no reason why this is the case. Both the narrative and the performance in this production are of such a high quality. Yet there is a tension bubbling at the heart of it that is so unsettlingly relevant.
The Mountaintop is a fictional depiction of Martin Luther King’s last night on earth. The action takes place in a single room – Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, outside which the civil rights activist gets shot on April 4th, 1968. The set is no bigger than this – literally the size of a hotel room – making it extremely close, both claustrophobic and intimate. It allows us, the audience, to become privy to Dr King’s final hours in such fine and emotional detail. We see the anguish, laughter, fear and tenacity etched on the face of Mensah Bediako (King) at every turn. Such is the verisimilitude of Katori Hall’s script that there is even time to hear the great man himself go to the toilet, much to the amusement of the school group that had come along to watch. This level of authenticity, played out in real time, allows the conversation between King and hotel maid Camae (Rebecca Carrie) to flow naturally and build organically, with impressive results. The two actors bounce off one another brilliantly. Their timing and pace are perfectly attuned. They appear so comfortable in their working relationship, and so at ease with their characters. It makes for some excellent exchanges, fizzing with sexual chemistry and fermenting emotional intensity.
The success of their relationship helps concentrate The Mountaintop on a solid foundation. It helps to retain its integrity as it progresses into what could be considered surrealism. Without giving too much away, a dramatic twist sees the introduction of a heavenly dimension, bringing a sharp focus onto the reality of King’s impending death and his relationship with God. I liked the fact that Hall plays with our expectations, imaging God as both black and feminine. This is a God who is contactable, reachable through the hotel phone. Such is the bizarre nature of this section, King even has a conversation with Her. Yet it is testament to the quality of The Mountaintop’s writing and acting that it never runs off the rails. It is all part of the bigger message which comes into sharp focus at the play’s conclusion.
It is impossible to leave the theatre without responding, in some way, to The Mountaintop’s final scene. A powerful poem – “The Baton Passes On” – begins a subtle change in focus as its message is not only directed at King but at the audience too. Once Carrie finishes this piece, Bendiako stands on a plinth, addressing the audience directly. He evokes the great oratory skills of King to give an emotive speech which leaves you in no doubt about the need to respond. It is an arresting, challenging and profoundly affecting moment. On reflection, it also brings into sharp focus the continuing injustice of Shayek’s observation.
The Mountaintop is a rallying cry for each of us to be the change. It is an excellent production that surely signals for greater diversity in the theatre industry. There is a need for greater representation of minorities on stage, and on this evidence, this should certainly be the case. With an exceptional script, an immersive set, and a highly talented cast, The Mountaintop deserves much wider recognition. So, Welsh theatre industry, support more creative people from BAME backgrounds. On this evidence, you won’t regret it.