ORLANDO — “The Mountaintop” begins in a deceptively quiet way. It’s set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, on a night when pouring rains simply will not stop.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. rushes into his motel room to get out of the rain, and he seems tired, even a bit weary. There are a host of small frustrations for him to deal with: his wife forgot to pack his toothbrush, he has run out of cigarettes, and he may be getting a cold. For several minutes at the opening of the play, King is alone in the room, where he tries reading and testing out his famous speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” He is interrupted only when a maid knocks on the door, bringing him a fresh pot of coffee.
The play by playwright Katori Hall initially lulls you into making assumptions about where it is headed, and what it intends to do. We quickly become aware, for example, that the date is the eve of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 – his last full night alive. It seems natural to expect this will be a historical drama that attempts to use King’s writings to propel the story, perhaps to reflect on how his message still resonates today.
As the maid starts some small talk – mentioning that she had seen him on television at the local store and knows who he is – you start to wonder if he will begin reading his speeches to her, or try preaching his message of uniting all Americans, to use this common worker to get a reaction to his ongoing mission and work.
As it turns out, that’s not even close to where Hall ingeniously takes you.
“The Mountaintop,” which is now being produced at The Mad Cow Theatre in downtown Orlando, is a stunningly original piece of work that always stays one step ahead of the audience. Set entirely in that cramped motel room, with the constant sound of heavy rain in the background, the play initially moves in surprising ways, as Dr. King can’t resist borrowing cigarettes from the maid, allows her to pour some liquor into his coffee to help sooth his cold, and seemingly allows her to flirt with him a bit.
It’s a bit like watching a monumentally important man, carrying the weight of so many hopes and dreams for justice and fairness squarely on his shoulders, now taking a few moments to stop, relax, and indulge his penchant for something as ordinary as a good smoke.
And even, at times, to express some doubts about himself, about his abilities to deliver on so much of what he’s promised to millions across the nation.
But as King shares his anxieties, his inner fears, the maid becomes …. peculiar. Sassy, opinionated, not shy about snapping at him, it seems odd that any maid would stick around that long in King’s motel room. Eventually, both King and the audience begin to settle on a more sinister possibility: that the woman has been sent to his room as a plant, to seduce King, and then use that to blackmail him or hurt his cause. It seems to make absolute sense that this is where the play is going …
… only, to Hall’s great credit, that conclusion isn’t even close. It’s at the midway point where this drama takes a sharp and radical turn that is as startling as it is riveting, bringing this play much closer to something like “It’s A Wonderful Life” than a Hollywood 1960s bio like Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” for example.
And from that moment on, it is literally impossible to accurately guess where “The Mountaintop” is headed – or to not feel absolutely captivated by it.
At times surreal and wildly experimental, “The Mountaintop” is a fantasy about the great power one man can have to pass down the torch of freedom from one generation to the next, to inspire – in both life and death – a movement that can suffer victories and defeats, but keep moving forward.
It does so in a way that is never preachy, obvious, repetitive or clichéd. It’s a boldly original vision that’s all the most fascinating to watch because of that.
The Mad Cow’s production gives us two superb performers who work so beautifully together because of the way their roles are so radically different. Clinton Harris gives us a Martin Luther King who, in the quiet solitude of a motel room, can just be a humble man with the same instantly recognizable ticks and quirks as the rest of us, while Felichia Chivaughn is stunning in the way her character goes through so many transformations – and yet she is gripping in each one.
“The Mountaintop” is being performed on Thursdays through Sunday through March 16 in the Mad Cow Black Box Theatre. Tickets are $35.75 for a show with a curtain time of 8 p.m. on all evening performances and 3 p.m. matinees.
Tickets start at $25.50 for a special matinee performance of “The Mountaintop” on March 5 at 1 p.m., and there is a special Pay What You Wish performance scheduled for Wednesday, March 12 at 8.
The theater is at 54 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando. Call 407-297-8788 for tickets.
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