Monday, May 6, 2013

The Mountaintop at Performance Network

"[Malcom X] was 39. I'm 39."

The Mountaintop opens with a motel room's dimly lit interior, cars' headlights passing along the rainy street outside. We hear the last two minutes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech – the last of his career – and after he concludes, "mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord," a wet and tired King (Brian Marable) arrives at the motel.

This is room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It is April 3, 1968 – the last night of King's life.

Brian Marable as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King had long known he was in danger; he acknowledged it in the speech he gave that night, but vowed to carry on: "I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!" The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall, is an imagined story of King's last night on Earth; one during which King examines his life, his successes and failures, and his unfinished dreams and incomplete plans.

The play reminds us clearly that King was, after all, a man – a courageous and righteous man, but one as susceptible as any to fear, illness, and ultimately death. The hundred minutes (no intermission) are filled by conversation between King and Camae (Carollette Phillips), a maid who brings coffee to the motel room. The play is an insight into King's life, mortality, and dreams; it gives the audience a powerfully compelling lesson on his determination and our own duty to continue carrying his message of love, equality, and peace.

The production was excellent – the play received a standing ovation at the Sunday matinee I attended, and I don't believe any of the audience could begin to discuss the show until we were in the afternoon sunlight outside the theatre. It isn't all serious, though; there's usually a lighthearted moment just around the corner to give the audience (and, of course, Dr. King) respite from the intensely raw and surreal circumstances which develop onstage.

Brian Marable as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; Carollette as Camae

The Mountaintop is a new play by American playwright Katori Hall. It opened in London in 2009 and on Broadway in 2011, and in 2010 won the Olivier Award for best new play. I loved Performance Network's production, and I'd highly recommend that you don't miss it. (The London production garnered critical acclaim; the New York Times didn't particularly like the Broadway production.)

I was happy to recognize several names from the University's theatre school in this production's program. The scenic & media designer (Justin Lang), lighting designer (Craig Kidwell), and stage manager (Michelle Bryan) are recent Michigan graduates; and the costume designer (Christianne Myers) is a faculty member in the theatre department. I love seeing Michigan grads doing cool stuff around town, and I hope this trend continues.

Brian Marable as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

The Mountaintop runs through June 2 at Performance Network, downtown at Fourth Ave and Huron. The play runs approximately 1 hour 45 minutes without an intermission. Tickets are available online.

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