The Mountaintop captivated its audience through a clever balance of humor and thought-provoking statements from Thurs., Jan. 14 to Sun., Jan. 17 at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse of Kalamazoo College. Faceoff Theatre’s Kenajuan Bentley and Tanisha Pyron played Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Camae, respectively, in playwright Katori Hall’s fictionalized story of MLK’s last night before his assassination.
The play opened with King entering room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee after giving his famous speech titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” concerning the Memphis Sanitation Strike. The play only has two characters, King and Camae, who is a maid on her first night of work.
The 90-minute play challenged popular knowledge of characters such as God, angels and heroes by offering an unexpected angle–King was depicted as having human faults despite his role as a civil rights hero and other characters that are typically seen as perfect, like heroes such as God and angels, were also given downfalls. All characters were African American, including God, who Camae described as “dark as midnight.”
Once King is in his room he starts to write his next sermon, and though he is tired, he decides that with a cup of coffee from room service, he would keep writing into the night. Camae appears with two cups and a pot of coffee. King flirts with her and convinces her to give him a cigarette and smoke with him.
Camae acts as King’s equal, as she challenges his methods right to his face, accompanied by many curse words. A big surprise comes to the audience when Camae reveals that she is an angel sent by God to prepare King, who she calls Michael, for his assassination.
From here to the end of the play, Hall ingeniously weaves the five stages of death into King’s actions. Though King’s struggles are serious, the occasionally mixed-in humor gave the audience a brief break from morbid themes. The play closed with Camae taking King to the mountaintop to see how the future would play out.
A talkback between the audience and the actor and actress followed the play, featuring Black Arts and Cultural Center Director Yolanda Lavendar, K/WMU professor Bianca Washington, and Kalamazoo NAACP Director Charles Warfield.
The audience complimented the performers and brought up how King’s baton that Camae spoke of had indeed been passed on, but civil rights is still not yet as advanced as it should be. Another person noted the amount of young people in the room and how it is their responsibility to keep passing on the baton.