Powerful ‘Mountaintop’ built on sterling performances

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Mountaintop – now running at Weston’s Walker Farm stage – is a fantasy that imagines the last night of Martin Luther King’s life set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis during a thunderstorm. It is April 3, 1968. King has just delivered his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech and returning to the motel, he sends his friend Ralph Abernathy out for cigarettes. Pall Malls, not the cheap brands.

Maechi Aharanwa as Camae brings coffee and a message to Neil Dawson as Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Rob Aft

As he takes off his hat and coat and shoes (his feet smell bad enough for him to react to them) he begins working on a fiery speech while a woman in a clear plastic raincoat watches him from outside the room. She slides aside transparent panels that stand between the audience and Room 306 and enters, then exits the room unnoticed by King.

Without spoiling certain revelations provided by playwright Katori Hall, it’s enough to say that this woman, Camae, is there to help King with the transition he will make the following day when he will be assassinated.

A few moments later she arrives – as a chambermaid – with a cup of coffee King has ordered. They begin to talk and we begin to see the civil rights icon as an ordinary person smoking, drinking, flirting with Camae even while he talks with his wife on the phone. Camae remarks on the holes in his socks and criticizes his approach to the struggle for civil rights.

“Walking will only get us so far,” says Camae. “How bout a march for ass whooping?”

While King and Camae talk, the rain continues and each successive clap of thunder seems to startle King more than the last. We also begin to feel there is more to Camae. When King asks if she has a cigarette, he finds that she smokes his brand. And when they share her last Pall Mall, she suddenly pulls out another pack – “a magician.”

Then, when an especially loud thunder clap shatters the air and King’s nerves, Camae tries to calm him by calling him a childhood name he says she should not know. This sends King into a paroxysm of paranoia that results in Camae revealing herself, why she is there and later, most chillingly, how she got there.

Camae then guides King through the stages of grief – denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance – exhorting him to “pass the baton” on to those working with him, including Abernathy and Jesse Jackson.

Camea comforts King as he comes to realize and accept his fate Photo by Hubert Schriebl

King rages against God saying, “You have some nerve to drag me to this moldy motel in Memphis to die” and then engages in a pillow fight with Camae and, worn ragged, bargains for a chance to see what will happen to the movement after he is gone.

This is presented as a video montage projected on the glass wall, which Camae has closed. Camae speaks a list of names, places and events punctuating it periodically with “The baton passes on.”

While it takes some time to get going, The Mountaintop builds into a powerful play propelled by sterling performances by Maechi Aharanwa as Camae and Neil Dawson as King.

The set is low and wide, making it feel somehow claustrophobic, and with all the talking, the play could easily become static, but director Raz Golden keeps the actors moving in more ways than just walking around. Aharanwa gives King an example of the kind of fiery sermons she would have him give dressed in his jacket and stinky shoes while all but bouncing on one of the beds.

A plaque on the base of the set explains that this is the room where King was staying when he was killed. So with the glass wall in place it feels like a what is has since become, a museum. As one person attending the show put it – a diorama.

Lighting designer Austin Boyle, sound designer Carson Joenk and projections designer Stefania Bulbarella provided effects that established the closed in feeling of the place and then from time to time broke through it.

One small complaint is that at the beginning of the play, when the transparent wall was still in place, the sound of King talking first to Abernathy and then to himself was muffled and somewhat hard to understand.

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is the final play of The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s 85th season. It is running through Oct. 23 at Walker Farm. As this production is being performed indoors, social distancing is in place and masks and either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test result are required.

The Mountaintop is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.  It is currently sold out, but the box office has kept a wait list for other shows this season. The box office can be reached at 802-825-5288.

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