Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, the University of Delaware Resident Ensemble Players’ (REP) current production, has been a regional-theater favorite since its 2011 New York City run. While it pushes all the right buttons — portraying Martin Luther King Jr. as uniquely heroic, yet wrestling with human frailty — Hall's script rests on a stereotypical view of life after death that earns some chuckles but otherwise feels lazy.
Director Walter Dallas (formerly artistic director of Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre and founder and director of the University of the Arts’ School of Theatre Arts) brings out the best in The Mountaintop, sharing the rest without apology.
The posthumous device is familiar to anyone who's seen It's a Wonderful Life, and who hasn't? A novice angel from a heavenly bureaucracy descends to Earth to fulfill an assignment. When I first experienced the play, I thought hiding this plot twist was for the best, but Dallas's skillfully wrought production openly teases us with Clarence's — sorry, Camae's (Antoinette Robinson) — magical powers instead of hiding her identity. It works.
No reason to be coy
King (Hassan El-Amin) retires to his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis on April 3, 1968, and we all know what will happen tomorrow. Camae, a maid on her first night of work, brings coffee and stays to chat and flirt. A storm rages outside, and we also know what that means: God is angry. When King wishes for his favorite Pall Mall cigarettes, Camae produces a pack. It’s the first of several convenient coincidences that clue us in to her powers.
Robinson's Camae is as alluring as the script requires; she’s a stunning beauty with a fiery spirit. She suggests that King preach a more direct message: "Fuck the white man." She spikes his coffee from a flask. She tells him he'd look better without his moustache. And she has a bigger agenda.
El-Amin navigates Hall's vision of King with skill and conviction. The righteous anger and visionary idealism we expect are convincing, but equally believable is the guy who jokes about his stinky feet, lies to his wife about taking care of himself, and considers bedding a motel maid so long as she's not working for the press or the FBI.
In the room
REP's Studio Theatre — a black box in the university’s Roselle Center for the Arts, where You Can't Take It with You runs on a neighboring stage — allows scenic designer Stefanie Hansen to put audience close to the action on three sides of King's room. The fourth is not only a wall with door and windows leading to the fateful balcony, but a screen for Clint Allen's projections that vividly create, along with Kristian Derek Ball's bold sound, a vision of the decades since King's assassination. It's explosive, excellent, and, of necessity, somewhat grim.
After these fine performances in this nonstop 95-minute play, one can forgive the trite old notion of Heaven as a resort run by a benevolent dictator. But Hall clearly isn't concerned with envisioning an afterlife. This whimsical magical situation proves an imaginative way to reveal King in all his complexity. The Mountaintop provides an intimate, incisive, and inspiring view of King's hopes and fears, and the toll his mission takes even before his final sacrifice.