In The Mountaintop, a 2009 hit play in England, American playwright Katori Hall presents a unique version of American icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: orator, preacher, activist, adulterer, chain smoker, male egoist. Set on the stormy night before King’s April 4, 1968 assassination on the balcony of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Hall creates a King (Brandon Jones) mostly stripped of hagiography: King selfishly
sends Ralph Abernathy out into a raging storm for desperately needed Pall Mall cigarettes; complains repeatedly about how bad his feet smell; frets about his bad breath and want of a toothbrush; curses, and flirts, tempts, then bestrides Camae (Liz Morgan), a comely maid on her first night of duty at the Lorraine Motel. Katori’s MLK has feet that smell worse than clay, and is more champion pillow fighter then civil-rights champion.
This 90-minute play strips King down from its opening words after the lightning flashes and thunder crashes. “Why America is going to Hell,” King says as he writes, repeats the line, then goes to the lavatory upstage left, and pisses loudly with the door open. The only laudable thing he does is flush (he neglects to wash his hands). “America, you are too arrogant,” he writes as he says the line, checks for phone taps, then sits, takes off his shoes, and checks to see if his feet smell worse than his breath. The Mountaintop spends a lot of time bringing Dr. King down with the rest of humanity. This would be like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, written by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, having Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abe spewing obscene jokes repeatedly and worrying that his stovepipe hat stinks from the sweat of his brow, the Emancipation Proclamation wedged in as a mere afterthought.
Jones frets and struts his 90 minutes on the stage as a very human and uncharismatic Martin Luther King, Jr., and Morgan creates a spritely maid who is far more than the sum of her “chain-smoking like a motherfucker” part (when a maid on the first day at a motel knows everything you like and dislike, there’s more between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in MLK’s oratory). The Mountaintop exults and wallows in trivia for most of its running time. Yet when deus ex machina takes over—God in her manifestation as a large, jolly African-American woman (the exact manifestation is also at the heart of The Shack, a 2007 Christian novel that spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list) literally is called, and She talks to “her favorite,” The Mountaintop peaks into the sublime. Snow falls in Memphis worthy of It’s a Wonderful Life. Camae shows MLK what will come after his death; “What is this vision I see before me?” he asks, Macbeth-like. “Is this just another mirage, I see before me?” he repeats after a series of images and a long poem that takes The Mountaintop into a future up to “and Black Presidents!”
Oddly, The Mountaintop is most affecting in its last 20 minutes. While it was a hit first in the U.K. in 2009, it flopped on Broadway despite starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. As it is very popular with regional artistic directors in the 2013-14 season, Capital Repertory Theatre has plenty of company producing The Mountaintop; the play just doesn’t reach the heights it did with the English press, nor does it quite match the excellence of seldom produced plays like Black Pearl Sings! or the sublime Crowns of Cap Rep seasons past.