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The Mountaintop” - a tribute to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. - the man not the legend

With the play “The Mountaintop,” the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY is proving Black History Month is not just a fabricated event to entertain African-American audiences. The work shows how the history of the United States is a shared experience between all races.

“The Mountaintop” is a fictional tale that shows why the loss of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassin’s bullet, at age 39, was a loss to all Americans.

In the 90-minute work, performed without intermission, playwright Katori Hall imagines the last night of King’s life spent in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. 

King enters the room from just delivering his famous, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” speech. Alone, he checks the room for spy devices, calls his wife, starts to prepare another speech and calls room service for coffee. It’s a slow, but sensible start to a play that wants to show how great men live ordinary lives.

The mood continues when a maid, on her first day at work, delivers the coffee. The two chat, even flirt and joke with each other. She laughs at the holes in his sock and mocks his vanity about keeping or shaving off his mustache. By showing King as a man with smelly feet, a touch of vanity, and a flawed libido, it builds on the premise that King, despite his greatness, is a normal man.

That “The Mountaintop” speaks to King’s accomplishments in human terms is important. King was murdered 56 years ago. Which means, many if not most, of those in an average audience have no connection to the Civil Rights leader as a living being. This play attempts to help us understand that great men and women are average people who take action.

At no time does the play try to depreciate King or his accomplishments. Indeed, once it is established that this a work about King the man rather than King the legend, it is able to speak to his contributions to social change.

This happens about the time it becomes obvious the maid is not an average housekeeper. She knows too much and she seems more in control of the power in the room. If she’s not a plant for the FBI, the question becomes – who is she? 

The answer is strained and depends of the use of the theatrical device termed “magical realism.” It does, however, permit King to understand his place in history and to face the fear that his accomplishments might dissolve without him.

The production, which continues through Sunday on the main stage of Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, effectively captures the humanity of King. 

Iniabasi Nelson carefully creates a portrait of a man devoted to his cause of peaceful protest. He respects, but rejects, those who feel violence is the answer to economic oppression. Thus, he feels pained when some on his march resort to violence and looting knowing that the actions undermine the purpose of his cause.

Nelson’s low-keyed performance is true to the goal of portraying the legend as a common man. This Martin Luther King, Jr. is more a philosopher than an activist. Even though it supports the intent of the playwright, there is a longing to occasionally see the man as a charismatic leader whose mere presence could move thousands to action.

King’s passiveness, tends to give most of the power in the play to Camae. Angelique Powell skillfully offers a variety of emotions to create an enigmatic figure who is both charming and duplicitous. 

Camae is the driving force in the play. She respects and admires King, yet she is rarely subservient to him. Her attention generating performance has you wonder - is the play about King or Camae?

Despite minor flaws, first time director Michael A. Lake displays a strong vision for the material, the performances and the onstage movement. The pacing sometimes suffers because of the demands of the text, but overall, he keeps this two-person drama free from ever becoming stagnant. As an added bonus, Lake grabs all the humor in the play without disrespecting its characters or the theme.

“The Mountaintop” is production that is revealing, honest and serves its purpose of showing that greatness is in the doing. In the most subtle way, it is a call to action for the audience to complete the business of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The Mountaintop” continues through Sunday at the Capital Repertory Theatre, 251 North Pearl Street, Albany. For schedule and tickets go to tickets.proctors.org.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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