Unlike other statues dotting the DC Mall, we know MLK – or at least think we do. The increasingly geriatric among us have memories, or at least memories of memories. There’s the annual replay about having dreams and being on mountaintops that confounds what memories we do have. And then there’s what we tell our children. At a Catholic school where I work, every year the librarian tells the children “he was just like Jesus.” Yawn. Despite the images and words, our knowledge shifts, slips away. He ossifies into a holiday. We know less and less.
Into this void, comes The Mountaintop, which debuted on Broadway, in 2011 with Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson (an improbable combination for these roles, if there ever was one). The TheatreWorks’ production of this work by Katori Hall will leave you variously stunned, raw, teary. It functions as an evening in an unpredictable Gethsemane, including side-splittingly funny moments and a powerful video montage that’s the story of all our lives. You thought you came here for a history lesson you already knew. Instead, you leave amazed at your own misassumptions and part of something bigger.
The effect of this play on the audience was not unlike that of The North Pool, also by TheatreWorks. Although different in many ways, both two-person shows relied on complex layering, slow revelation, twisting turns and stark surprises. Both firmly held the audience in their grasp in a way that theatre almost never does, gently releasing them only after the applause died away. While The Mountaintop was funnier, more charming and less immediate than The North Pool, the tension of both built so powerfully and insistently that the only release was in springing to your feet afterwards for a standing ovation. You could spend a lifetime of theatre-going looking for experiences such as this. To have two such evenings delivered by TheatreWorks within a year or so of the other is nothing but astounding.
This theatre magic was worked by Adrian Roberts, as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Simone Missick, as hotel maid Camae. Roberts bears a reasonable resemblance to MLK, and more importantly, carries himself like King. Missick, who like Roberts, has a long string of stage, film and TV creditors to her name, has such a luminous quality, that she could be an Afro-American Marilyn. The chemistry between these two, connecting them in life and death, is immediately immediately apparent. Their delight in each other only magnifies our delight on them. MLK mugs for Camae’s make-believe camera and we laugh as King does his version of Elvis. The images fly, pure poetry.
“Civil rights will kill you before those Pall Malls will…”
“Negro talk strikes faster than lightning.”
If you catch one play this year, The Mountaintop should be it.