Performing Arts: The Mountaintop

by patrickmccoy

REVIEW: Arena stage presents commemorative, yet provocative, look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. 

By Patrick D. McCoy

Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae in Arena Stage’s production of “The Mountaintop.” (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Perhaps it was divine intervention that the opening night performance of Arena Stage‘s current production “The Mountaintop” occurred on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s tragic assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Nevertheless, many notables were in attendance for the celebration that centered around the commemorative, yet provocative, work. Spotted were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rep. Donna Edwards, opera singer Carmen Balthrop with her husband Patrick Delaney, former congressman Harold Ford and the Smithsonian’s Dr. Lonnie Bunch, among others.

Katori Hall‘s creation pleasantly pushes the envelope in terms of King’s depiction. Most still view the slain civil rights leader as an iconic figure, almost saintly with no human struggles. This dramatic work  may be one of the few that presents the case that King was indeed a mere mortal with some of the same demons as the next man. Director Robert O’ Hara is to be commended for the element of “forward thinking” executed with the modern sound effects and lighting; it was as if Dr. King was seeing into the distant future.

Left alone in his motel room awaiting Abernathy’s return, King orders a cup of coffee from room service. The young maid Camae not only delivers the coffee, she also serves up some sass and comic relief in contrast to his perplexed outlook on the burdens of the civil rights movement. Through an evening of “straight from the hip” talk from the young, pretty maid coupled by the probing questioning of God by the young minister, Camae reveals to King that she is an angel and that she has come to take him over to the other side.

Actress Joaquina Kalukango gives a commanding performance. Her portrayal of the outspoken maid was a reminder that it can be the person that one least expects that will have the greatest impact. As King, Bowman Wright brought a a great sense of honesty to the portrayal of the public servant. Some things in the production may disturb purists: seeing King smoke, drink and even swear. However, the end result is a heart-wrenching account of a man who gave up so much so that others could have a happier existence. Hall’s production allows the audience to finally reach out and “touch” the greatness of a man that is too often presented in a fashion that is unattainable.

“The Mountaintop” continues through May 12 at Arena Stage. Tickets here.

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