The Mountaintop by Penumbra Theatre performing at the Guthrie

Erika LaVonn and James T. Alfred in The Mountaintop.  Photo by Tim Fuller.

Erika LaVonn and James T. Alfred in The Mountaintop. Photo by Tim Fuller.

We see it when we walk into the McGuire: the Lorraine Motel sign, visible through the window of Room 306, stark against the black Memphis sky, crashes of lightning bringing it into high relief.  The Lorraine.  Where Martin Luther King met his unwished-for martyrdom.  The site of unspeakable national tragedy, a place associated in our minds, always, with blood, death and nagging mystery (who really assassinated the great man?).  We breathe a sigh of relief when King, early in playwright Katori Hall‘s twisty and sinuous The Mountaintop (Penumbra Theatre performing at the Guthrie, through April 19), pulls shut the room shades.  The Mountaintop is challenging enough without the constant blinking image of the sign.

The Mountaintop gives us Martin Luther King on his last night on earth.  Initially, this King is fussy, rumpled and petty, worrying about his lack of a toothbrush, cadging cigarettes, trying to persuade the motel management to send up a late night cup of joe, composing a so-so speech.  We want to shake him: “No!  You’re the Martin Luther King!  A great leader!  Millions of people look up to you!  Who cares if your shoes stink?”

Similarly, James T. Alfred‘s powerful performance as King builds slowly.  Alfred’s King prowls his room, jumpy, sleepless and paranoid, displaying none of the charisma and magnetism we equate with this man.  But then Hall pulls King into an awareness of his upcoming demise.  At first, King denies death.  He bargains – with Ms. God, whom the play gorgeously describes as black as midnight, with swirling hair and astonishing dark eyes.  “I know the touch of fear better than that of my wife,” he says.

But finally, the courageous man accepts death, and his future as a – the – African-American martyr, the great man whose legacy is still being played out.  When this happens Alfred’s performance crescendos.  It contains ringing power.  And so does the play.  Great work, from both actor and playwright.

Similarly wonderful is Erika LaVonn as Camae, the motel maid who brings King his carafe of coffee.  LaVonn gives the play, initially, a snappy comic edge, with her louche, over the-top, loud, goofy, silver-tongued, presentational (she seems always to be facing the audience, grinningly) performance.  Her breasts and her derriere seem too big – inflated.  We adore her, but soon we get impatient and ask, “Don’t you have real work to do?”  At this point, Camae makes a stunning revelation; she turns out to be an—

All right.  I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided I’m not going to reveal this.  Suffice it to say that The Mountaintop will surprise and amaze you, that Katori Hall has enough tricks up her dramaturgical sleeve to keep you firmly planted on the edge of you seat.  The two performers are more than equal to the play.  See it.

Director Lou Bellamy and his team of designers do bang-up work.  I was particularly taken by lighter Don Darnutzer‘s stunning end-of-the-show effect.  And by soundist Martin Gwinup‘s thunderstorm.

Are you, like me, tired of the all the shallow hagiographic portrayals of Martin Luther King floating around?  The Mountaintop offers a real antidote to all this.  Who’d’ve thought it would be possible to explore this man in fresh, fascinating ways?  Katori Hall, clearly.

This is an active time at the Guthrie: Othello runs through April 20, Abe Lincoln And Uncle Tom In The White House through April 6.  The Acting Company plays Hamlet and Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead in repertory, starting April 22.  Finally, Crimes Of The Heart starts in early May.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his (recently updated) website.


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