This is an important play, about a very important subject. (Yawn …) But wait! It’s also funny, and great theatre.
That’s because Katori Hall, already an acknowledged major playwright (Hoodoo Love, Night/Sunday Morning, Hurt Village, Children of Killers), decided to tackle a daunting subject. The last night alive of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For those of us with grey hair, or white, or none, just reading those words can be jarring, can bring tears. We still know where we were, what we were doing, when we heard the news from Memphis.
Katori takes us back to the innocent hours before, when King was a weary worker in the vineyards. After yet another day trampling out the grapes of wrath, with thousands marching behind, he is alone; bone-tired in a motel room, he’s somehow supposed to gather sleep and renewal for the next day’s labor.
He orders coffee from room service; he puts in a call to his wife; and he waits for Ralph Abernathy to return with his cigarettes. A knock at the door and room service enters in the person of Camae, a lively young maid.
After a moment of hero worship, her brief visit keeps failing to end. He bums a cigarette, they flirt, they spar over how best to advance the cause of “the Negro” … Then, in a flight of daring imagination, Katori lifts this story into another realm altogether, where even deeper issues are thrashed out and — after much turmoil — brought to a kind of resolution.
Although The Mountaintop premiered seven years ago, and won prizes in London and New York, nobody told me about the realm it enters, or what transpires there. (Recent controversy about a college theatre casting a white actor as King has helped keep the play itself discreetly hidden.) I will keep silent as well, because the surprise is so delightful and challenging.
This production, in a modest space, is abundantly artful. The motel room set (by John Iacovelli) is almost depressingly realistic. But it’s all white (like the context King lived and worked in), a diaphanous drape hangs up center, and the two outstage walls curve inward, enclosing the space not in rigid right angles but almost like hands, or wings. Jose Lopez’s lighting similarly moves from realism through suggestion (lightning flashing in the room during a storm) and into the wider universe the story discovers.
Simple, period-precise costumes (by Anastasia Pautova) evoke the time and place, but more — they make us feel these human bodies straining to fit and stay contained by their social roles. The sound and projection design (Marc Anthony Thompson) enfolds us in the era’s music and deftly uses a small TV console — first, to locate us in the historical moment, and then later, to do much more.
Then there are the performances. Larry Bates (King) and Danielle Truitt (Camae) have played this before — in 2013 in San Diego, where Roger Guenver Smith also directed. Smith uses space and movement skillfully, and builds a steady crescendo of theatricality and intensity while letting us breathe and laugh along the way.
Bates meets his intimidating role by not giving us the King we’ve seen and heard, but by asserting himself as King. This not only makes the play workable, it grants us a climax — when, briefly, he does let King’s rhythms overshadow his own — that pierces the heart. Truitt’s character is unknown to us, yet the challenges of her role are, if anything, greater. She flies through a superhuman range of moods and tones like van Gogh flashing colors onto a canvas, yet we never lose our sense of who Camae is. These two performances serve this brilliant play faithfully, and provide texts for other actors to learn from.
In The Mountaintop, this company — playwright, director, designers and actors — takes on an enormously difficult subject and makes of it a most human story, one that radiates beauty and integrity. You may talk for weeks about Hall’s decisions; but you will never regret taking this journey.
The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall, directed by Roger Guenver Smith.
Presented by The Matrix Theatre Company, at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., LA 90046.
Saturdays at 8:00;
Sundays at 3:00 and 7:00;Mondays at 8:00 (except March 7 and 21);
through April 4.
Tickets: <www.plays411.net> or (323) 852-1445