April 3,1968, Memphis, Martin Luther King’s final hours. Katori Hall’s powerful interpretation
of a seminal event in American history.
It is exceptional when a play delivers both humor and meaning, “The Mountaintop,” now on stage at El Cerrito's Contra Costa Civic Theatre through May 8th, succeeds on both levels. Artistic Director Marilyn Langbehn has assembled a stunning cast, the powerful Khary L. Moye as Dr. King, and the marvelous Kimberly Ridgeway as Camae. This two person play imagines the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Dr. King is alone in a motel room waiting for his associate, Ralph Abernathy, to deliver a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and is working on a speech tentatively titled “Why America Is Going to Hell.” A maid, Camae, brings him coffee and just happens to have Pall Malls and a hip flask. Over smokes and whiskey for the next 90 minutes, they discuss civil rights, theology, sin, sorrow and the weight of history. Winner of the 2010 Olivier Award for New Play and a 2011 Broadway hit starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall is all about a chance encounter between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a mysterious hotel maid.
On the eve of his assassination April 3, 1968, after delivering one of his most memorable speeches,"I've Been to the Mountaintop" an exhausted King retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, while a storm rages outside. Moye doesn’t have the King look but his powerful performance reflects King so well that we don’t have to struggle with that issue. His breathtaking speech at the end of the play demonstrates his humanity and makes his flirting seem more playful, rather than potentially cheating on his family. The warmth Moye created also makes us care more about him personally. Ridgeway creates a mysterious maid, Camae, with great skill. She grasps all of the character’s contradictions and plays them superbly. She is bold, irreverent, argumentative, and apologetic in perfect measures. She is willing to challenge King on his home ground. They clash on the basic case of civil unrest with Camae not happy by King’s passive faith. She argues that for black Americans “to speak by love is to die by hate,” while King counters that “to live by the sword is to die by the sword” as in the case of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.
King’s historic strike in our national history is one of the themes of the play, a story that could easily become preachy, but it doesn’t. Hall presents a message of King’s quest to find a way to love those who cannot love us back. Her script shows King as you and I - very human with his mistakes but does not distract from the astounding results of his short life. Hall foreshadows what we know is coming, that King will be killed the next day as he stands on the balcony outside his room. Early on he denounces plans by the mayor of Memphis to ban a march; “that’ll happen over my dead body.”
Director Langbehn brings this 90 minute play home; she is sharp with the second Act - assigning her creative staff to create some eye popping props and visuals. Devon Labelle’s clever props are inventive, and Kuo-Hao Lo’s motel room set is authentic as it is a bit drab yet with the two brilliant actors who bring the two bed space alive, the set works its magic. Courtney Johnson's light design is very important at the dramatic close of the show, yet the glow from the motel sign that hangs outside the room is haunting at times. Sound designer Michael Kelly has a rain storm looming outside the room and it scares Dr King. Kelly also brings an historic mosaic of projections that highlight the speech that King might have done. Lisa Danz’ simple and very authentic costumes are imbued 1968, classic black and white texture.
The CCCT audience is very vocal at times, responding to Dr King's lines and power on stage. Khary L. Moye truly brings King to life and is the inspiration of this play. He is a tour de force and will bring you to tears. THE MOUNTAINTOP has one more weekend at the Flynn theatre in El Cerrito, which is very important theatre. The CCCT is set to end their 56th season with the Bay Area regional Premiere of “American Idiot” that opens June 10th. Since Green Day calls the East Bay their home, this summer musical will be a sure sell out and bring a new young audience to the CCCT, it will to be a Green Day summer. In the meantime catch this trip to the Mountaintop, it will impress you.
Contra Costa Civic Theatre Presents
By Katori Hall, Directed by Marilyn Langbehn
Featuring Khary L. Moye and Kimberly Ridgeway
Through: May 8
Contra Costa Civic Theatre,
951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $11-$28; 510-524-9012, www.ccct.org
Join CCCT on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ContraCostaCivicTheatre/timeline
Photo’s by Ben Krantz