Theater review: ‘Mountaintop’ changes channels mid-climb

Portland Center Stage's excellent production runs into a script problem

Natalie Paul and Rodney Hicks in "Mountaintop"/Patrick Weishampel

Natalie Paul and Rodney Hicks in “The Mountaintop”/Patrick Weishampel

If we’re to believe the playwright Katori Hall, Martin Luther King Jr. actually wasn’t happy on the rainy night he spoke at a rally in support of Memphis’ striking black sanitation workers. At least not by the time he got back to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Instead, King was weary and nervous, fighting a cold, jonesing for cigarettes, and worrying over the wording of the next speech he planned to give.

The close of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, as it came to be known, might have been simply a matter-of-fact nod to the dangers of high-level social activism in that tumultuous time, an attempt to put jittery followers at ease. In fact, Hall, who grew up decades later in Memphis, wrote her play “The Mountaintop” because her mother had been dissuaded from attending the April 3 rally by bomb threats. In the bright hindsight of history, though, it sounds like prescience: The next evening, King was shot to death while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine.

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
—Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968

For this reason especially, Hall’s choice to set her play in Room 306, on King’s last night alive, is an intriguing one. He’s back at the motel, where he’s bunking with his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, but Hall endeavors to provide a contrasting voice, so she imagines that while Abernathy has gone off on an errand, a pretty young maid brings coffee to the room and engages King in conversation.

The resulting drama—if that’s the right word—premiered in London in 2009, earned rave reviews and won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent to the Tony) as best new play. It hit Broadway two years ago with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as stars. And on Friday, a Portland Center Stage production opened a longer-than-usual eight-week run in the Ellyn Bye Studio.


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