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Preview: The Mountaintop

Will Coviello on the new production at Anthony Bean Community Theater

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NOTE: Since this story appeared, the theater has moved the opening date. The play will now premiere Nov. 8.

In the 13 years he has run his namesake theater, Anthony Bean has only appeared onstage a handful of times. He wasn't planning on taking the stage this season, but then frequent collaborator John Grimsley shared the script of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop.

  "When I read it, everything stopped," Bean says. "I changed our schedule, and moved this up. It's powerful. I said, 'We have to do this now.'"

  The Mountaintop is about Martin Luther King Jr. and a hotel maid he meets in Memphis, Tenn. The work takes place in the late hours of April 3, 1968.

  Bean decided to play the role of King himself, which he sometimes refers to as Samuel L. Jackson's role. The Mountaintop received a popular and protested production on Broadway in 2011. Jackson played the much younger King (who was 39 when he was shot), and Angela Bassett played Camae, a hotel maid with a thick Southern accent. She's full of folk wisdom and is at times foul-mouthed and strangely worldly.

  Mountaintop is a work of fiction, and it is not primarily about King's civil rights work. The play is set in his hotel room as King visits Memphis during a sanitation workers' strike. He's waiting on a coworker to retrieve a pack of cigarettes and when he orders coffee from room service, Camae brings it to his room. She also has cigarettes, and they start to talk and flirt while sharing a smoke. Camae is aware that he's married and although she obviously has great respect for his work, she's not starstruck. In an example of Hall's adept writing, Camae says she is accustomed to "cleaning up after other people's messes." Monica R. Harris, who recently appeared in Cripple Creek Theatre's Clybourne Park, plays Camae.

  The play's King is complex. He's aware that the FBI spies on him and he has dangerous political enemies. He also knows there are great hopes placed on his leadership, by the workers in Memphis and internationally. He has petty vices, including his cigarette smoking, and greater ones as well. At times in the work, he references his speeches and sermons, but those are the only parts in the play that call for a voice similar to the actual Martin Luther King Jr.

  Both King and Camae say things that could be taken as heretical, either to the faithful or those who prefer to keep King on a pedestal. That sparked some of the protests surrounding the initial New York production.

  The work did not premiere in the U.S. Although Hall graduated from Columbia University in 2003, her precocious work opened in London, where it drew Olivier and other award nominations. It won the 2010 Olivier for best play.

  Also notable about the New York show is that it was only the second Broadway production of a play by a black woman. The first, more than 50 years earlier, was Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. (Mountaintop was quickly followed by Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond, the third black female playwright on Broadway.)*

  Anthony Bean Community Theater also presented Raisin in the Sun, and Bean played a starring role. His other lead role was in A Soldier's Story.

  "People would assume that because I have a theater that I'd be in all the lead roles," Bean says. "It's hard to direct and run the theater and do everything that requires at the same time."

  Bean has written many of the productions presented at the theater, including many of the youth plays and musicals. The theater presents a mix of works that he refers to as plays with messages and art for art's sake.

  "Being an African-American theater, you almost have to do message plays where you educate the community," he says.

  In many cases, he's found plays that work for both categories. His company has presented all of Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's 10-play, decade-by-decade cycle about black life in the 20th century. Most recently Bean directed Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Most of the works call for large ensembles, and The Mountaintop is the first work to have a cast smaller than four players.

  For Mountaintop, Bean asked Harold X. Evans to direct. Evans frequently performs at the theater, but this is his first time directing there. He found it an easy offer to accept.

  "[Bean] has a vision of what he wants to do," Evans says. "[Harris] is real professional. So I won't have to do much directing at all."

  In looking back on the day before King's assassination, Hall ties together much about what King was doing as well as things he couldn't know. The play fittingly has many great and small moments and it's an intriguing work about a man who was already larger than life but still human.

— The original version of this story incorrectly stated Katori Hall was only the second African American female playwright to have a play on Broadway. Gambit regrets the error.

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