San Diego, CA---“How many times must we live through these throat-paralyzing sequence of days of gun play, grief and muffled drums?” (Life Magazine, June 14, 1968.)
This question, written after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (on June 5th 1968), followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of course before that, John F. Kennedy in 1963, and the attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, seems eons ago. We are still asking the same question today after 26 young children were gunned down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Conn!
If you are old enough to remember the Texas School Depository Building, the Grassy Knoll, the Lorraine Hotel, and The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and outside the Washington Hilton Hotel then you were there.
But let’s go back to the pre 1963 shooting of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist Minister and civil rights activist whose passionate 1963 “I Have a Dream” (before 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.) and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermons put him in the spotlight as #1 shaker of the Civil Rights movement.
His ‘Mountaintop’ sermon was delivered at a rally in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in 1963. The very next day he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with the striking workers. To say that his life was in danger at all times would be an understatement. “Fear is his companion, his lover”.
Fast-forward about fifty years. Enter 32-year-old playwright Katori Hall, Oliver Award Winner of a new play “The Mountaintop”. In her ninety or so minute play, now in rather flawless West Coast premiere production at The San Diego Repertory Theatre (thanks to the direction of Roger Guenveur Smith), she re-imagines MLK’s last night on this earth in the seedy Lorraine Hotel room # 306 (to be exact) the night before his assassination (April 3, 1968).
In what Hall conjures as a conversation between King and the pretty little chambermaid, Camae (Danielle Moné Truitt) sent (supposedly) by the hotel upon his request for room service, the play unfolds somewhat like a TV sit-com.
In one of the more far-fetched scenes King finally gets to bargain with God about his job here on earth “I’m falling into the ocean of death. How dare you take me now. NOW! I beg of You. I plead-God, how dare you?” (BTW, God is a women.)
The play opens as King (Larry Bates) is ushered into the room by his most trusted deputy and best friend Ralph Abernathy, whom he immediately sends out again to get a pack of Pall Malls. Left in the room alone, he deadbolts the door pulls the curtains over the windows, turns on the lamp and he starts reciting the beginnings of his next sermon. (“Why America is going to hell…”) He then calls for room service.
When King gets a good look at the young lady holding a cup of coffee, with a newspaper covering her head against the evening’s rainfall, his eyes just about pop out of his head. Both have no trouble flirting as in “I like what I see’ at a glance. This is her first day on the job, she tells him and while the coffee is on the house, she advances that he can pay her for ‘gettin’ my press ‘n curl wet out in this rain”.
And so it goes. They jibe and play. He wants cigarettes with his coffee, she scolds because he doesn’t take care of himself. We glimpse at his frailties, listen up about his non-violent marches; does she like him better with or without his moustache? They debate seriously about the work he has yet to finish. He is paranoid about his room being bugged and she reminds him that the size of his FBI file is thicker than a bible. His concerns about his role here on earth as a leader and Civil Rights Activist are contrasted against his playful self as a womanizer; a fragile human being who flirts with the chambermaid while speaking to his wife and children on the phone.
Finally, after some bantering about and she refers to him by his childhood name Michael, she admits that she was sent as a messenger to help him make it through the night. “God said I gotta get you ready to come on home”. And while he begs for more time she has to convince him that someone else will have to pick up the baton.
For those in the know, history left its mark for all to see as the television cameras rolled outside on the balcony of room 306 at 6:01 PM, April 4th 1968. Yours truly will never forget those moments, or the others for that mater.
The playwright makes an interesting case keeping the dialogue light until the very end. Here she pours it on and Truitt runs with it like gangbusters reeling off everyone who has been handed the baton from Jesse Jackson on. And then the American experience from the burning of Memphis to Vietnam, to Stonewall, to Andrew Young, Angela Davis, Black raised fists at the Olympics, Roots, Iaaac Hayes and James Brown, Marion Barry, AIDS, Spike Lee, Oprah to a black president come to stain the concrete outside room 306 as the world of Martin Luther King, Jr. disintegrates.
Her play is oft told as part fantasy and part fact but never really satisfying in equal parts. We know so much about this man and all that happened before during and after his death that a more substantive play might shed more light on him. His legacy as a man and Civil Rights leader, as examined by Hall in this particular forum is superficial and flimsy. It doesn’t always convince. It is worthy of a more serious and complex examination.
Both Bates and Truitt play beautifully off one another. Bates is natural and easy and Truitt funny and delightful. The chemistry flows from one to another and the laughs and chuckles are frequent as one might see in a sit–com.
Christopher Ward’s set design almost looks like a cubby shelf set in concrete. Mark Anthony Thompson’s sound/projection design is right on target beginning with projections of what looks like ribbons of blood cascading down a mountain? and Sherrice Kelly’s lighting design is as dimly lit, as is the history that follows King’s death.
From a purely whimsical point of view about MLK’s last night on earth, “The Mountaintop” might be your cup o’ tea. You be the judge.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 31st
Organization: San Diego Rep.
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza Downtown San Diego
Ticket Prices: $31.00-$52.00
Venue: Lyceum Space