Play about Martin Luther King’s final hours “The Mountaintop” now playing at the Segal Centre

 

By STUART NULMAN

 

Next April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in modern American history. On April 4, 1968, revered civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was felled by an assassin’s bullet as he stood on the balcony in front of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, Dr. King was there to support striking Memphis sanitation workers.

 

Millions have recognized and respected Dr. King’s tireless work to gain basic civil rights for America’s Black population between 1955 and 1968. It not only earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, but also the respect and admiration of people of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds from around the world, a good number of them deciding to join ranks with Dr. King and his cause (which included New York rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, who also took part in the historical Selma to Montgomery March in 1965).

 

There are so many events – both triumphant and tragic – that have marked the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. And that goes without saying for the events that led to his assassination nearly 50 years ago. But suppose what might have happened in his room at the Lorraine Motel in those hours that led to his tragic death? That’s the subject that is broached in Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop”. Produced by Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop and Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, the play is now being featured at the Segal Centre’s Studio Theatre until October 29.

 

The play takes place in Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine Motel on the night of April 3, 1968, just as he arrives following the delivery of his memorable final speech in which he proclaimed that “I have been to the mountaintop”. Exhausted and spent after a long, turbulent day in support of the striking sanitation workers, Dr. King wants to spent the remainder of this stormy night working on his next speech (which he will proclaim that “America is going to hell”), and indulge in a cup of coffee and maybe smoke a couple of his favorite Pall Mall cigarettes.

 

The much needed cup of coffee is quickly delivered by Camae, one of the motel’s chambermaids. After striking up a lively, engaging conversation about why Dr. King is in Memphis and his role in the civil rights movement in general, Camae reveals to him her actual reason why she paid him this visit, which was not solely for coffee and smokes, but for a more lifetime spiritual purpose.

 

“I’ve always admired the work of Martin Luther King, and I have come to realize that the man himself was just a man,” said Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, the play’s director, in a recent phone interview. “The idea of the play is to look at our leaders who are doing big things in life for the greater good, and that for leaders – and for we as people – have to take responsibility for all that we do, no matter how little or big it is.”

“’The Mountaintop’ focusses on a turning point in Dr. King’s life,” she added. “At the time of his assassination, he was 39 years old, he had some health challenges, and the civil rights movement that he led was both picking up and losing some steam. It was a time in his life that he had to really do some self-reflection about the work he had done.”

 

Overall, “The Mountaintop” is a wonderful, thought-provoking piece of hypothetical history. And what makes it so fascinating to watch are the strong performances by its two leading actors. Tristan D. Lalla as Martin Luther King delivers a portrayal of this great man with a lot of genuine humanity, and shows that there is a real side to being a leader of a cause that constantly has him under so much scrutiny, both of the admiring and dangerous kind. And Letitia Brookes as Camae brings a lot of life, energy and plenty of sass into the role, which makes her not only a perfect foil for Dr. King, but also someone who inadvertently becomes his conscience as he enters his next journey.

 

Another wonderful aspect of “The Mountaintop” is the excellent set design, which faithfully recreates room 306 of the Lorraine Motel — complete with the neon-lit marquee sign – in which no minutiae detail is spared to give the audience that “you are there” feeling, as you are immediately immersed into that fateful day in April of 1968.

 

“The Mountaintop” is a production that is not to be missed, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of this sad event, it gives us a rather fascinating journey into self-reflection as Martin Luther King is about to embark upon the road to immortality.

 

For more information about “The Mountaintop”, go to www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca. To purchase tickets, call the Segal Centre at 514-739-7944.