“America is going to hell,” cries a disgruntled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a motel room as thunder crashes outside. The opening minutes of “The Mountaintop” set the tone for Katori Hall’s play, a fictional portrayal of King’s stay at the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, the eve of his assassination. The play originally premiered in London in 2009 and the latest incarnation, directed by Ron OJ Parson and starring David Alan Anderson as King and Lisa Beasley as the motel maid Camae, is running at Court Theater through October 13.
The play revolves around a conversation between King and Camae, who has answered King’s request for a cup of coffee. King is visibly nervous. Upon arriving he does a quick sweep of his room, looking under beds and fidgeting with lamps, checking for listening bugs planted by the FBI. The search prompts the audience into the awareness that it’s 1968, not 2013. In an age when every fourth-grader in America can recite the “I Have a Dream” speech, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that King was not part of the establishment, but a threat to it. Today, a high school ten blocks north of Court Theatre is just one of the many that bear the activist’s name. But to the public of the play’s world, King is a radical revolutionary—not the saintly figure honored with a federal holiday.
When Camae arrives with his coffee, King is friendly and flirtatious and the two begin to chat. Jovially, he jokes about his foot odor and borrows cigarettes but betrays a world-wearyiness about his work. Casual jokes about King’s death – “I’ll keep working ‘till it kills me” – are hurled like grenades at the audience. It is never clear if King is attempting to romance Camae, or just being a flirt. Either way watching King, often presented as the paragon of morality, seduce, whatever the ends, adds more tension to the already fraught scene. But King’s more idealistic attributes are not absent from The Mountaintop. King gives several rousing speeches to Camae championing civil rights, the poor, and an end to the War in Vietnam. As an actor, Anderson fluidly combines the human and the ideal into one coherent character. A compellingly complex view of King emerges, bringing to light both his originally revolutionary character and his personal failings, and offering a refreshing vision of a man who is too often subject to a saint-like portrayal that is respectful but reductive.
Beasley’s Camae is an equally complex and interesting character who proves well matched to Anderson’s King. Though seemingly just a humble hotel maid, she is intelligent, funny, flirtatious and sharp. She teases King and offers him cigarettes while playing devil’s advocate by espousing a philosophy that mixes Booker T. Washington’s preference for economic independence with Malcolm X’s calls to violence. Like Anderson, Beasley has an excellent emotional range: she can switch from playful to serious on the flip of a dime.
The play’s strangest aspect, which initially strikes one as a dubious break from realism, is how the plot unfolds in its later stages. After supernatural elements make an entrance around the halfway mark, King’s fate is revealed to him. While this plot twist initially feels a little forced, “The Mountaintop” rebounds. When King is compelled to face his fate, and ultimately accept it, the play’s second act begins to shine. The unidealized portrayal of King throughout “The Mountaintop” allows us to empathize with him as he struggles to accept his role as a martyr. This struggle, brilliantly scripted and acted, forms the play’s climax and, despite the wacky non-realist interruptions, “The Mountaintop” retains its tragic elements, achieving a simultaneous sense of both the humanness of King, and the magnitude of his sacrifice, that is easily the play’s greatest triumph.