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'The Mountaintop': Arena Stage Presents an Alternate View of Martin Luther King Jr.

Eve M. Ferguson | 4/10/2013, 9 p.m.

In the opening minutes of "The Mountaintop," playing at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, one could easily become defensive about the portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as viewed through playwright Katori Hall's lens. But as the play progresses, the subtle nuances that present the iconic and deeply revered preacher as human, capable of frailties that go along with humanity, come forth and not only redeem the production, but elevate it to the heights of greatness.

The setting is the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on the night that King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountain Top" speech at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. It is also the last night of King's life, and that is the central theme of the play.

The two-person, one-act play, which premiered on Broadway in 2011, is the fictional interaction between a weary and pensive King and a maid in the motel, who comes to be known by her nickname "Camae." Their conversation, which starts innocently enough over the want of a cigarette by King, intensifies, giving the initial impression that the two are entering into a sexual dalliance. But then, through humorous, touching and often times, combative dialogue, we find the deeper significance of this meeting, and the beauty of King's message shines though, evoked and provoked by this young woman whose delivery is often laced with profanity and affront.

King is played by Bowman Wright, who reprised the role for this Washington, D.C. premiere of "The Mountaintop" after honing the role in the Alley Theatre of Houston, Texas' acclaimed run. Camae is played by Joaquina Kalukango, who also played the character in Houston. The dynamics between the two actors make for an amusing and thought-provoking discourse on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I looked at documentaries, footage of his speeches and read a few of his books," said Wright. "However, in no way was I trying to imitate him, but rather was trying to find his essence."

The essential man is what playwright Katori Hall was trying to bring forth in this production. She came to Arena Stage through the organization's American Voices New Play Institute, and was one of the playwright residents. A native of Memphis, Tenn., "The Mountaintop" came out of a very personal experience that Hall had.

"When my mother was 15 years old, Dr. King came to speak at the Mason Temple in Memphis, and she wanted to go and see him," Hall writes. "She lived around the corner from the Lorraine Motel and had seen King speak before. But this time Big Momma told her no because she had heard through the grapevine that someone was going to bomb the church. Even a friend of hers had overheard the mayor say that if Dr. King came back to town, he wasn't going to leave alive."

The character, Camae, is "an extension of my mother, but also my alter ego as well."

The setting is simple, using a carousel mechanism, only showing the outside of Room 306 and the plain, understated interior of the motel room that King stayed in. All the action takes place in the tension created between the characters, and the surreal lighting and special effects that move the dialogue from a conversation between two people, to a supernatural event as King's hours dwindle away until his eventual assassination.

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