The Geffen production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, a fantasia about the final hours of Martin Luther King Jr., benefits from a stellar cast. Jon Michael Hill personifies the icon most audiences have only seen on the television and sets the stage for a great man’s evaluation of his ordinariness. But when Amanda Warren, playing a maid named Camae, arrives onstage, she owns every inch of it. With a nasal, commanding voice and a statuesque presence, Warren keeps the audience captivated.
The play takes place on April 3, 1968, when King checks into the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, after a long evening of preaching “I’ve been to the mountaintop” while suffering a cold. Anxious and spurred on by the city’s sanitation workers right to strike, King settles in to complete speeches for the week.
While history tells us that he stayed there, Hall imagines what happened in that motel in those evening hours before the day he was assassinated. Needing coffee, King calls room service and gets more than he bargained for. A bubbly, loquacious maid on her first day brings the coffee, the cigarettes, a hint of flirtation, and quite a reckoning for the preacher. Throughout the night, they tease, argue, and assess both the purity and unsavory aspects of King’s life.
Hall’s play is poetic. She has a great ear for dialogue, and both characters are vibrantly portrayed. Hall reveals King’s great accomplishments and impactful spirit but doesn’t shy away from his pre-#METOO behavior. Though we are aware of his impending death, The Mountaintop never becomes maudlin. The characters discuss fatalism and the fact that “the baton passes on” without getting sentimental.
In the second half of the play, things turn a bit corny. A phone call that turns the evening into a bad Bob Newhart sketch robs the play of its subtleties. Still, the end of The Mountaintop creates a feeling of finality, the last moments of the prophet.
Hill injects humanity and pain into his portrayal of King, whispering a song into the phone while waiting for Coretta to answer, defending and then admitting to his faults and hubris. But Warren is a lightning bolt. She can’t light a cigarette without shifting the audience to the edge of their seats. She appears fragile, but then snaps around and cuts through the preacher’s BS. She’s both a warm bath and a cold shower. She utilizes her high-pitched voice to hide her intelligent nature at first, to seduce the womanizing side of the great man.
Patricia McGregor aptly directs this two-hander with tension but also with sweet, playful moments that become fanciful. When the actors pillow-fight, feathers explode and fill the room with a joyous, childlike energy. Rachel Myer’s set, with its dank colors and hard beds, appropriately marks the irony that one of the 20th century’s heroes lost his life in a room frequented by sex workers. The set slides to the front almost overtaking the audience, putting us all in the room. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting adds grime to the bathroom glare and the small room’s natural malaise. Yee Eun Nam’s projections show us a brand-new world with many landmines ahead. Mylette Nora’s costumes reveal a man who’s been marching for a long time, with holes in his socks and dress clothing that looks well-worn.
Katori Hall first presented The Mountaintop in the beginning of Barack Obama’s administration, when hope inspired many. It would be interesting if Hall were to adapt her ending after having witnessed what happened to the nation in the past few years and how Martin Luther King Jr.’s baton has been tarnished less than a decade since the play first premiered.