On the sleek and spacious stage of the Westerbeck Recital Hall, an actor playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes a number of flirty advances towards a young woman who is not his wife. Soon the actor playing the young woman begins to talk about the speech that she would make if she were in the shoes of Dr. King as he listens intently, encouraging her to share it with him.
The young woman puts on his suit and shoes and in an oratory voice states that black Americans should build their own counters instead of seeking to desegregate lunch counters in the South.
“I don’t want anything of the white man’s,” the young woman shouts. “Fuck the white man!”
Dr. King laughs then remarks that maybe it could be his next slogan: “Fuck the white man!” he shouts a number of times.
As the laughter of the characters and the audience dies down, however, Dr. King grows pensive. He wonders aloud whether the voice of violence is the only thing that will make white people listen, and tries to theorize about where the deep hatred which he has seen so often from white people toward black people comes from. He thinks that like all humans, they’re scared. But their fear is of losing the world of self-importance that they’ve known for their entire lives.
In this staged reading of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, starring Larry Powell, Sheria Irving, and Maxwele D’Angelo, the power of looking back at the real Dr. King, 50 years after his death, brought the audience from uproarious laughter to tears. The fictional play seeks to humanize the image of the great Black-American Civil Rights legend, presenting his faults, his humor, the doubts he faced, and his underlying greatness on the night before his assassination.
The performance was arranged by the PCC Jackie Robinson Arts and Humanities Lecture Series and was moderated by Charles Reese, who explained that the Series’ Faculty Representative, Dr. Christopher David West, himself, and everyone else behind the Series was excited to bring this reading to campus due to its message and relevance to the present. He believed that beyond commemorating Dr. King, the play could ignite a fire in people; it could get them to do more, in whatever their capacity, to transform the world in the spirit of the great Civil Rights icon.
“Something new this [performance] can teach Americans, and all people, about Dr. King is that he was human,” said Irving, who played the character Camae. “He was a man–a flawed man–and he made mistakes, but that doesn’t stop you from being great.”
The play takes place on a stormy night in Memphis, in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, the room where Dr. King is staying the night before he walks out onto the balcony and is shot. A young woman named Camae, supposedly a worker at the hotel, delivers coffee to Dr. King’s room and they begin talking after he asks her for a cigarette. The two begin joking, flirting, and debating into the night, until Dr. King makes a startling discovery: the young woman isn’t who she seems, and the play takes a step into the surreal.
Camae is actually an angel sent by God to bring Dr. King up to heaven. The two then engage in emotional discussions amongst themselves and on the phone with God, until Dr. King accepts that he needs to hand off his struggles to a new generation of activists. Dr. King then walks out of the room, hand-in-hand with Camae, toward the balcony where he spends his last few moments on Earth.
“The challenge of preparing to play M.L.K. in Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” is that you are representing and tackling an icon,” stated Powell, who played Dr. King. “I, as the actor, am conscious that people are projecting all of their views, thoughts, and emotions of Dr. King onto me, more than they would any other character. So, I’m constantly conscious of that and I have to remind myself that I am not just playing Dr. King; I am excavating and looking for the King in me.”
Dr. King’s image has gone through a major transformation in this country since his death: the year of his assassination a Harris poll found that Dr. King held a public disapproval rating of almost 75% and had for years been a priority target of the F.B.I., who attempted to defame him as a communist sympathizer. This negativity followed King’s focus on desegregation in the North, his fierce anti-Vietnam War stance, and his advocacy for redistributive policies to help the poor.
Compare that with the present-day image of Dr. King, who in 2011 had a Gallup poll favorability of 94%, whose “I have a dream” speech has been changed into a colorblind message to “move on” past the U.S.’s history of racism, and whose voice is being used to sell pick-up trucks.
“The Mountaintop” attempts to bring the audience back to the man himself, challenging the narratives presented in the modern-day discourse around Dr. King. It brings the audience a King who is tired and bitter about the way he has been treated by many of the people who once championed his ideas. He is a chain-smoker and a womanizer, who likes to curse and talk about the days when he was wild and young. But, despite these very real, “warts-and-all” characteristics, he remains a man who in the face of great obstacles is determined to fight for what he believes is right, even when the people who brought him to great fame have deserted him.
Across from the character of Dr. King is Camae, whose beauty and youthful wit belie the facts of her past life: before being tasked by God with the responsibility of accompanying Dr. King into the afterlife, she was a prostitute who was killed by an angry blue-eyed man.
At a college campus living through an age when the blinders of the color-blind philosophy taught to us as children are being ripped off by racism personified in tiki-torch marches and the office of the presidency, it is important to see these transformative portrayals of the heroes like Dr. King who we would like to imitate in our lives. When civil rights icons and other great humans are seen as superheroes, deprived of their human errors and struggles, students cannot help but believe that the greatness needed to change the world we live in is untenable to an everyday person.
“Most of the time we feel like our shortcomings stop our destiny from becoming a reality,” said Powell, after the show. “So I think when you see someone in such a human way, you begin to understand that the shortcomings may in fact be what make you great.”
As the play transformed from an examination of the real Dr. King to a more surrealist struggle between King, the angel Camae, and God, (over the telephone) Camae communicates God’s message that it is time for King to “pass the baton” to the next leaders of the struggle.
Irving stated that this idea, of passing the baton, really stood out to her in this play: it spoke to this idea of doing as much as you could, no matter how small, knowing that there would always be others there to pass the baton to, in the struggle to change the world.
At the end of the play, Powell’s voice trembled with the oratorical grandeur of Dr. King’s most famous speeches as he delivered his final sermon in the motel room. The crowd sat enthralled as King moved through visions of the future: of the great, the horrible, and all the extraordinary events that occurred in the U.S. and around the globe in the arenas of racism and social justice from after he died up until almost the present day. His sermon ended with his voice echoing the refrain.
“The promised land is so close, and yet so far away.”