“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. […] So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
3rd April 1968. These words are taken from the final passage of Martin Luther King’s very last speech. Titled “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop,” many have retrospectively read this passage as prophetic of what was to happen next, when the world skipped a heartbeat and King was tragically assassinated the following day.
Katori Hall’s Olivier award-winning The Mountaintop fills in the forensic and spiritual gaps of these last hours, pulling apart death’s looming presence, which casts a shadow over King’s final words. We are physically and emotionally brought to the other side of King’s door, Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis. Shoes off and feet stinky, the play deftly provides an intimate insight into the man he was when he wasn’t marching.
The two-hander’s force is driven by Dr Martin Luther King Jr (Gbolahan Obisesan) and Camae (Rochelle Rose), one of the motel maids who is a philosophical and rhetorical match for the famous preacher. Played with enchanting lyricism and defiance by Rose, Camae holds up a lens to King’s political mythology, revealing the rift between what we remember him as, and what we often overlook regarding the world’s untainted patron saint of civil rights. They are given space to banter, to flirt, to pause, to fear, to reveal and to scrutinise each other’s visions of faith and civil rights.
Director Roy Alexander Weise aesthetically marks the play’s spiritual themes by layering the character-driven plot with qualities of a dreamscape. Ethereal lights illuminate these spirits and cigarette smoke blossoms consume the room, blurring the boundaries between motel and theatre. As snow falls, thunder claps and debris builds, the audience feel a part of something larger than the perimeter of the plot; we experience a sense of something about to burst out of, or into, history.
The abstract subtlety of direction and the tour-de-force performances drive through the more clunky and labored moments of the script. Obiesan enchants with a convincing vocal and physical evocation of King, mastering a balance of cheek, intelligence and vulnerability which dives into the heart of his complexity.
In the play’s most moving sequence, a visual mosaic is projected onto the walls of the Memphis motel, and Camae weaves together a revised narrative out of the melting-pot of world history from the moment of King’s death; the black experience beats at its centre. The weight of history presses down on our shoulders and the baton passes on. We are framed as agents in this historical continuity, and the ongoing fight for social justice and equality. The audience rise in response, and stand in solidarity.
The Mountaintop is playing at The Weston Studio at the Bristol Old Vic until November 24. For more information and tickets, click here.