It's April 1968 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has just ordered room service at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. King has come from delivering his famous speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop" at Mason Temple. Rain beats against the motel windows as a first-night-on-the-job maid named Camae knocks on the door to bring coffee, a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and immediate tension to Anthony Bean Community Theater's current show The Mountaintop.
In a hoarse voice, King (Anthony Bean) ushers in Camae (Monica Harris) and tells her, "I haven't been feeling good." It seems to be a premonition for what we know happened on April 4, 1968: King was assassinated. But in that moment, King is a weary man who finds the energy to flirt with the woman. This King is complicated, and the show uses his flirtatious nature and attraction to Camae to focus on the man instead of the mythologized leader and to broach the preacher's cheating, cursing and drinking.
At first, Camae seems to be an obvious foil to King, but she is much more. She is quick-witted and opinionated. In a riveting scene, Camae puts on King's shoes and suit jacket, stands on the bed and delivers a stunning monologue calling for better race relations. Throughout the show, Harris gives a beautifully nuanced performance. "Civil rights will kill you before those Pall Malls," Camae says before she lights a cigarette for him and gets ready to tell him why she's really there.
The whole show takes place in Room 306, with two beds, a desk, a table and not much else. In one of the intense show's lightest moments, King uses the motel's phone to talk to God. Dialogue between King and Camae is thoroughly engaging, and the two actors do a great job of carrying the show's weight. The difficulty in having a two-person cast is that extended monologues can trump action. For the most part, The Mountaintop has good energy, although the pace was static in a few important moments. The show is most lively when the two characters freely exchange ideas, which happens often.
Toward the end, there's a projected montage that includes images of riots, Oprah Winfrey, Trayvon Martin and President Barack Obama. The setup for this montage — King wants to see the future — is a stretch, but the footage is compelling.
Written by Katori Hall and directed by Harold X. Evans, the show is a fictional account of what happened during King's stay at the Lorraine Motel. The Mountaintop engages history and references contemporary issues, reminding us that while a lot has changed since King's assassination, there is still much work to be done. — TYLER GILLESPIE