The setting of Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop (currently running at City Theatre) reveals nearly everything we need to know about what is at stake in the action: “Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968” – the evening before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony outside that very room. It is a dark and stormy night; and the cliché of that opening seems a deliberate one, an early indication of the play’s interest in taking its audience on a journey from stereotype and “what we (think we) know” to the unexpected surprises that are revealed when clichés, stereotypes, and everything we (think we) know is subjected to closer inspection.
At the play’s opening, a stressed-out, jumpy, exhausted Dr. King (Albert Jones) is in desperate need of a cigarette and cup of coffee to help calm his jittery nerves and get himself focused enough to work on his speech in support of the Memphis sanitation strike the following day. He calls down to room service for the coffee (his friend and advisor the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, whom we never see, has been sent for the Pell-Mells), and minutes later coffee arrives in the hands of a sassy, sexy young maid, Camae (Bianca LaVerne Jones), who is on her first day on the job. She happens to also have a stash of King’s brand of cigarettes in her pocket, along with a small flask of whiskey, and the room service delivery quickly transforms into more than King bargained for. Camae is not what she initially seems, and although it would be a disservice to anyone who has not seen or read this play to give away here what we discover about her, I do not feel it is too much of a spoiler to reveal that what we think is going to turn into an evening of seduction becomes, instead, an evening of revelations, both literal and figurative. Over the course of ninety minutes, playwright Hall covers a lot of territory, including the demystification of a generational icon and saint, the doubts and fears that must beset spiritual and social leaders like King, the tactical and strategic rifts in the late-60s civil rights movement, the relative status of black women in the movement, the nature of religious faith, the impossibility of confronting one’s own mortality, and King’s legacy in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s a talky play, and at times I found myself wondering what it was, at core, “about,” but in the end this was not a flaw; indeed, its wide-rangingness and inclusiveness is a strength, allowing spectators to weave a tapestry out of the play’s exploration of human fears, doubts, needs, and desires and their own historical and personal experience of struggle and loss. Hall’s writing is punchy, full of both humor and pathos – I freely admit, gentle readers, that I laughed, and I cried, and though I cannot guarantee you will do the same, I greatly doubt anyone would not be moved by the play’s acerbic, light-fingered, but poignant imagining of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth.
In any case, Pittsburgh audiences should see this play at City Theatre to experience the marvelous cast, and in particular to see Bianca LaVerne Jones’s glorious, mischievous, and deeply sensitive interpretation of Camae. Her work on stage defines the word “protean” – she enters the scene like a lightening bolt (indeed, if memory serves, she enters with one) and immediately electrifies the action, working the language and action of the role with fierce concentration and flexibility and shifting its many registers with a magician-like sleight of hand. Her presence on stage is so compelling that even her listening is spellbinding – many times I found myself paying attention to her as she paid attention to her stage partner. I don’t do “ten best” lists at the end of each year like the PG, but Bianca LaVerne Jones’s charismatic, mesmerizing work in this production would definitely make it on my list of best performances I’ve ever seen, hands down. Albert Jones is also very fine as MLK Jr., and while it takes him a while to settle into the core of the character, he admittedly has the more difficult task here – it can’t be easy to play a cultural icon, even less a cultural icon who is, as his character is at the beginning of the play, somewhat “off his game.” By play’s end, these two strong actors have us fully steeped in the tragic and wonderful reality of what is not merely a fictional, but wholly fantastical encounter between two ultimately flawed and deeply humble figures at the cusp of an era-defining event.