'The Mountaintop'

A dramatically surprising examination of the night before Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

In many cases it might be fair to suggest it’s time for a moratorium on two-handers in which an actor impersonating (insert famous name here) is interrogated by another, allowing their achievements/ motives to be celebrated/ debunked. But not when someone as smart as Katori Hall is around to write a play as dramatically surprising as “The Mountaintop.” In James Dacre’s startlingly well-acted production, the playwright’s examination of the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is much more than dutiful biodrama.

The starting point is factually correct. It’s April 3, 1968, and having made a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, King (David Harewood) is holed up in the Lorraine Motel. With a storm raging outside, he pads in his socks about the dingy room (depressingly well-realized by designer Libby Watson), practices oratory, frets about the future and finally orders coffee from what passes for room service.

With the arrival of rain-soaked, plain-speaking maid Camae (sparky Lorraine Burroughs), who immediately recognizes “Preacher King,” it’s clear we’re in for the genre staple — a tussle between the public figure and the innocent questioner. But Hall is cunningly lulling audiences into a false sense of security.

Camae, it gradually becomes clear, is not who she appears to be. She’s nervy — it’s only her first day at work — but her lack of interest in playing by the rules sets up an aura of puzzlement, not least in justifiably paranoid King, already leaping in terror at the sound of every thunderclap.

Camae is the woman who knows too much. Is she a blackmailer? An attacker? An FBI agent? None of the above, but after about 30 minutes, Hall pulls off a wholly unexpected, thriller-like reveal of the truth behind their situation that would be dramatically ruinous to disclose. The surreal revelation brilliantly pulls the rug out from beneath the setup, grabs the audience and changes everything.

The initial debates have been predicated on King’s handling of his fame and influence in front of a young, initially impressed black woman. Everything now seesaws in the opposite direction, with Hall using her own perspective, a young black woman writing 40 years on, to cast King in an audacious new light.

Chief among the weapons in the playwright’s armory is her use of humor. There are debates aplenty about, for example, King’s vision or the efficacy of his dedication to nonviolent protest. But the arguments come with ever-increasing amounts of immensely welcome irreverence and laugh-aloud comic punch. 

Much of the latter stems from Hall’s writing not mouthpieces but fully developed characters, a real feat with a figure as sanctified as King. And Dacre’s first-rate cast takes the writing and runs with it.

In a commanding performance, Harewood doesn’t just have King’s presence, he has the voice. An initially gruff bark that opens out almost operatically into a shimmering vibrato, it never lets you forget this man was as much preacher as politician. Keeping audiences guessing, Harewood sweats King’s self-doubt and fear but balances that with a proud swagger that will surprise anyone expecting hagiography.

His lunging physicality is contrasted by Burroughs’ superbly light touch. In her West End debut, the actress is all darting eyes and lightning-fast reactions. Her thoughts instantly legible, she flips between flirtation and neediness, pliancy and power. Despite having none of Harewood’s physical heft, whenever necessary she effortlessly dominates the scene.

Instead of merely exhibiting liberal credentials by rehashing history or publicly laundering dirty linen, Hall re-examines King’s legacy in a provocative structure. Her final attempt to link King with the present tells audiences what they already know. But if that rare misstep is unusually didactic, it’s both brief and a small price to pay.

In a night of surprises, the biggest might be that this American play premiered on the London fringe at the resourceful new writing venue Theater 503. U.S. producers already are attached to its limited seven-week West End transfer. Future life Stateside is beyond doubt.

The Mountaintop

Trafalgar Studios, London; 380 seats, £39 $64 top

Production

A Sonia Friedman Prods. and Jean Doumanian, Tali Pelman for Ambassador Theater Group, Bob Bartner, Freddy DeMann, Jerry Frankel and Marla Rubin Prods. presentation of a play in one act by Katori Hall. Directed by James Dacre.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Libby Watson; lighting, Emma Chapman; original music and sound, Richard Hammerton; video, Dick Straker for Mesmer; production stage manager, Monica McCabe. Opened, reviewed July 20, 2009. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

King - David Harewood Camae - Lorraine Burroughs

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