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Review: Katori Hall 'Mountaintop'. Words by Jareh Das.



I had the privilege of attending Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, on it's seven week run at Trafalgar studio and it didn't disappoint. My general knowledge of Martin Luther King's legacy is very limited. It was a real thrill to learn more in this succinct 120-minute adaptation of his final moments. Although I had seen a lot of the iconic Shepherd Fairey imagery of Martin Luther King plastered about everything I have recently picked up, I didn’t read any listings/reviews prior to seeing the play and was in for a surprise as the afternoon matinee commenced (as a rule I never read listings/reviews in order to be wholly objective to the performance).

The Mountaintop is a two-actor dialogue focusing on a sequence of probable events that took place in Room 306 at The Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee set on the night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The opening scene is one, which depicts a troubled and restless King Jr. (David Harewood) pondering over his endearing civil rights plight, a man who seems to be at the end of his tether but still determined to convey his message and bring about change to American race relations.

King went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of the black sanitary public works employees, who had been on strike for higher wages and better treatment. He was booked in with his friend/companion Ralph Abernathy, Abernathy pops out and King orders some cigarettes by room service and is graced by the presence of witty Camae (played by Lorraine Burroughs). They talk about King's plight as a civil right activist, his marriage, his struggle, whilst chain smoking and flirting outrageously with each other. Camae offers suggestions but King often disdains her foul language and mockery of his snooty mannerisms. There is a real chemistry between them and if often feels like King and Camae could learn a thing or two from each other. The highlight of the play occurs when King asks Camae 'what she would do if she was him giving a speech'. She dresses in his suit and (smelly) shoes, takes centre stage in the room and gives a sentimental speech on racial unity culminating in violence, perhaps not the message King was trying to deliver.

The rest of the play takes an unexpected twist, as we are lead to believe Camae is a spy set up by the FBI to expose King's philandering ways. He loses the plot and is almost having a fit; Camae calms him down by revealing spectacularly she is an angel sent by God. The following scenes are quite humorous as King pleads to remain on earth to continue the realisation of his Civil Rights Movement (God is apparently a very attractive woman and very nice). In the end King agrees to pass on only if he sees the future and is assured his work is completed. There's a sequence of fast forward flashes that shows the way paved by King's legacy from the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa to Condoleezza Rice's appointment as first black female secretary of state. This sequence of event culminates in the inauguration of Barack Obama as America's first black head of state.

Hall's The Mountaintop is poignant in reiterating the significance of Martin Luther King's legacy in American politics today. Yes he was no angel and had his flaws, but this was a man who sacrificed everything (including his life) to promote race equality in America. It sounds cheesy but if not for King, it's unlikely Obama would be president and she calls on viewers to celebrate the legacy of change, righting wrongs and being truly committed to fighting injustice. The Mountaintop is simple in its deliverance but powerful in promoting its message of the importance of positive change.

'The Mountaintop' runs until Saturday, 5th September 2009 at the Trafalgaer Studios. Click the link for booking details:
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