OnStage Connecticut Critic
New Haven-based theater company Collective Consciousness has a few tricks up their sleeve during Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” but my favorite occurred before the show even began. You park in a quiet, urban lot, surrounded by a large brick warehouse building that once manufactured Erector Sets and now houses artist and yoga studios. You walk past some old-fashioned restrooms, up a flight of wooden stairs and then down another nondescript hall. But then you turn the corner and you find yourself at a motel-room door – number 306, to be specific – and you enter into the Lorraine Motel circa 1968. To get to your seats in the extremely intimate black box theater, you need to step on the carpeted set, need to pass the two twin beds and side tables furnished with ashtrays, lamps and an old rotary phone. Before the play even starts you feel like part voyeur and part living scenery, a premonition which proved to be both apt and thrilling.
Students of history might remember Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel as the last place Martin Luther King spent the night before being assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. But even though Dr. King is at the center of Hall’s “Mountaintop,” which bowed on Broadway in 2011, it is hardly a history play. No, Hall’s pursuits are not journalistic but poetic – making us look anew at a man the world has put on an incredibly high pedestal.
From the minute Dr. King (played with charisma and great depth by Terrence Riggins) enters we realize he isn’t the man we know from scratchy film reels. He’s tired and nursing a chest cold. He chain-smokes Pall Malls, drops a splash of whiskey into his coffee and forget his toothbrush back at home. His feet are sweaty and, when he removes his shoes, holes riddle his socks. When Camae, a friendly and mysterious chambermaid (played by 19-year old Malia Imani West in a radiant professional debut), shows up at his door to bring Dr. King a fresh pot of coffee and the newspaper, his eyes slide over her beautiful figure like an art purveyor at a gallery show. To put it bluntly, he is not a prophet or a living bronze bust but a mortal, flawed 39-year-old with the hunched frame and wrinkled brow of a man who has seen too much in his lifetime.
The first two-thirds of this 100-minute one-act follows a storied theatrical tradition: two very different people bound together by circumstances beyond their control (in this case a lighting storm, whose effects are seen and heard through the motel’s small window), being forced to cohabitate. Along the way, they will flirt, cuss, yell, preach and reveal intimate secrets that cut right to the very core of their humanity.
Although little of their dialogue is revelatory or revolutionary, Dr. King and Camae’s banter is warm and entertaining. As delivered with confidence and charm by our two actors, insights, insults and innuendos are ping-ponged back and forth. Through these conversations, we learn about Dr. King’s family, his frustrations and his worries for the future of the civil rights movement. In a moving section, he begins work on “Why America May Go To Hell,” a sermon he will in actuality never give. As he furiously scrawls notes, we begin to see the passionate public persona we all recognize. His ragged voice booms, his eyes twinkle, a vein pops in his temple, sweat pours from his brow. In that moment, we understand that this Dr. King is as magnetic and radical as he is imperfect and weary.
All of this is directed beautifully by Dexter J. Singleton, whose thoughtful, organic blocking kept the play from ever feeling too stagnant or stagey. His confident touches could be seen in many places, from the constant patter of rain outside to an outstanding and unexpected use of projections. A few beautiful technical moments shine through as well, such as Jamie Burnett’s glowing red light emanating from under the beds and through the windows of David Sepulveda’s set at a crucial time.
Unfortunately, just as we settle into the burgeoning relationship between these two, the script takes a sharp left-turn both in style and genre. I’ve been asked to refrain from exposing what twists follow, but the concept that propels the last third of “The Mountaintop” is admirable in thought but cheap and a bit underdeveloped in Hall’s execution. It’s like a short creative writing assignment stretched a little too thin, a hoary concept that is often too glib or too manufactured.
That is until two monologues delivered very close to the end. In one, Camae speaks to the future of America and, in the other, Dr. King preaches one last time, a speech only witnessed by us, the audience. Both are simply staged and delivered with such fierce integrity and raw honesty that it makes you forget the enigmatic and often long-winded detour the play takes. Their meaningful, impassioned words would be powerful on any day of the year, but I attended “The Mountaintop” just hours after Barack Obama left office and Donald Trump was sworn into the presidency on Abraham Lincoln’s personal bible. On a day like that, they felt incredibly imperative, inspiring and heart-breaking; a reminder of how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go and how lucky we are to have a company like Collective Consciousness around that takes risks and tells stories of such vital importance.
“The Mountaintop” runs through February 4 in New Haven, CT. For more information and to get tickets, visit: www.socialchangetheatre.org. To learn more about Mr. Singleton and Collective Consciousness, read our interview with him here: http://bit.ly/2j86xtn.