Restoring our most exalted celebrity leaders back to the status of mere mortal is not something we often consider. It’s much easier to leave them atop the mountain, where they can continue to do the all-consuming task of making our world a better place to be. Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” is a one of a few attempts to examine civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King through the lens of humanity. Hall’s rendering allows a brief, imaginative moment to consider how Mike (Martin Luther King’s childhood name) dealt with the stress of fame, the threats on his life, and the distance from his family, as well as endless the desire to want to make humanity better.
Hall reveals a King that was as regular as you and I. He drank too much coffee and was a chain smoker. He commented on the bad weather. He loved his wife and children, and felt intensely their pain due to his absence. He was a workaholic and, in Hall’s rendering, slightly self-important, if not arrogant, when comparing his non-violent methods to what he considered to be the more aggressive efforts advocated and carried out by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
King’s juxtaposition against a maid working in the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis where he was staying the night before his assassination serves to bring out these characteristics in a very blunt fashion. Here we see his preoccupation with what he will say at the sanitation workers march he is scheduled to attend the next day, contrasted against the almost, but not completely, inappropriate and innuendo filled discussions with the maid, Camae. Camae, who is presented as staunchly working class, is exactly the kind of person who, in King’s mind, would benefit from the success of his movement.
We see how he begins to doubt himself as Camae expresses that marching and sermons aren’t enough. In his ever-growing doubt he implores her to stay. Eventually, in her attempt to calm what appears to be a panic attack, she blurts out his childhood name Mike. It is at this point, rather abruptly and without warning that we the audience and King find out that Camae is not just a maid but an angel from the future that has come to guide him through his transition.
Though occasionally overacted and slapstick in certain areas, this rendering of Dr. King is an excellent opportunity for reflection on the universal challenges of human life that are significantly less glorious than the seemingly never ending limelight. Had Dr. King not been a man first, he could have never been the leader that we so adored and needed. Hall’s rendering reminds us that no matter how we begin our lives, and regardless of what we do in the middle, eventually we all face the same end: death. Shouldn’t we all hope to approach our final challenge with the same honesty and depth of emotion as Dr. King did from The Mountaintop?
“The Mountaintop” written by Katori Hall and directed by Valerie Curtis Newton is playing through October 5 at ArtsWest Theatre, 4711 California Avenue SW, Seattle, WA 98116. Tickets available online.