When reading about Katori Hall's The Mountaintop at the Matrix Theatre Company on Melrose, my initial impression was positive, but (as it turned out) a tad misleading. The idea seemed straightforward enough. The play tells of the last night spent by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the Memphis Tennessee hotel room where he slept, and a conversation he had with a maid. Sounded interesting--the famous man, in the midst of the very society-shaking movement which lifted him to fame, in a private talk with a working young woman on whose behalf he in theory has been working. Lots of potential there! The famous discusses life with the unknown, the ordinary. A man hearing reactions from a woman. An ideal confronted with the most mundane and practical. I was hopeful of insight coupled with emotional impact.
For the record, that was the least of what I got.
Starting with the scenic design by John Iocovelli, a bare white space with a few specific pieces of (also white) furniture, I got the impression of something not-really-naturalistic. At first, I simply took this as a means of filling up the stage space and also focusing on the skin tones of the two member cast. Well, that certainly seems true, but then before the action started the tiny period t.v. set showed a race.
Immediately, my thoughts went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but it didn't look right. Wrong period. The quality of the film didn't match. Then when Dr. King (Larry Bates) first appears, we see only his shadow.
Camae" arrives (Danielle Truitt), bringing the Reverend his late night cup of coffee. The two begin to chat, to flirt, to share a cigarette and to talk about...well, life. Each discusses the issues of the day, how they approach their respective jobs, what each thinks of the other as well as what each thinks the other thinks. But then, in a stressful moment, Camae refers to Dr. King by his given name "Michael." Hardly anyone knows this fact, and the somewhat paranoid man (with good reason--we know the FBI followed him, treated him as a domestic enemy for stirring the pot and demanding social change) reacts as if he's discovered a spy. Then...he finds out he's wrong.
Camae is not a spy. She's not even a maid. Instead she's a young woman murdered just a night or two before, sent by God to usher Dr. King into the next life. His time has almost come, and God wants him ready. Camae is an angel--one in awe of King. Because even now she cannot forgive the white man, while he has. Despite all his faults--including the fairly industrial strength flirting, plus a demand to speak with God to try and talk his way out of this--King yet stands ready to forgive. What, Camae asked at one point, do white people and black people have in common. "They're both afraid," he answered.
King wants to stay. Wants desperately to make things right for the things he's done wrong, but more wants so very much to see his people to the promised land. He has dropped the baton sometimes, he admits, but he's always picked it up again. But God's message is clear--time to pass that baton on. His part of the race is done.
What perhaps makes all this most powerful--other than the rock-steady performances of the cast--is how the play ends, as King gets a glimpse of the future. The baton goes on being passed, he learns, amidst all the good and all the bad, the advances and setbacks, the triumphs and tragedies. We share his vision, not a linear history nor some set of questions answered, but kaleidoscope of images and sounds while Camae utters what sounds like prophecy--what will be, and what must be. Pass the baton. When it falls, pick it up. And again. And again. And again. Amen.
So the reluctant martyr faces his fate. "Will it hurt" he asks? "You won't suffer," she answers. "The whole world will cry, though."
The Mountaintop plays at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046 on Saturdays at 8pm, on Sundays at both 3pm and 8pm through April 10, 2016.