Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is set in entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The fateful balcony is unseen. The furnishings are sparse –a bed, a lone chair and a table big enough for an ashtray. Through windows flash the bursts of intermittent lightning foreshadowing the next day and the many, many years of mourning ahead. There is a heavy presence of anxiety.
Yet the achievement of Hall’s play, currently occupying the Lyceum Space in a San Diego Repertory Theatre production directed by Roger Guenveur Smith, is how it shows us not King the martyr-to-be as much as King the man. This MLK, portrayed with a mixture of honest weariness and fire by Larry Bates, is as human as any of the Lorraine Motel room-renters. He smokes too much. His dinner is coffee. He flirts shamelessly with the fetching and sharp-tongued motel maid, Camae (Danielle Mone Truitt). The King we see is full of passion for God and for justice, but he is neither sanctimonious nor indefectible. King wants all men to live as one and to live free, himself included. He does not want to die, a martyr or otherwise, in spite of his devotion to God. When Camae turns out to be someone much, shall we say loftier, than a motel maid, King must confront his own fears and truths.
With Camae’s revelation comes a broader, stagy shift in the proceedings. A bouncing-on-the-bed pillow fight and a desperate King talking on a heavenly cell phone to The Woman Upstairs are two of the devices that strain the narrative. A potent ending, however, in which King, having accepted his fate, is shown (via projection screen) the future of the world after his death, allows The Mountaintop to end with grace and intelligence.
Truitt works hard for and earns plenty of laughs as Camae, part one, but it is Bates as King who climbs the mountain and makes us feel each exhaustive and resolute foot upward. His oratory moments are evocative of King, but not attempted imitations, which is to be commended. So is playwright Hall, for showing us the view – bright and tragic – from on high.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.