"Something is happening in Memphis — something is happening in the world," Martin Luther King Jr. said, near the top of his often quoted "I have been to the Mountaintop" speech. He went on to describe masses of people rising up with a common desire. "We want to be free," he said. Judging by the spirit of protest moving people to march again, we still do.
The Mountaintop, a fictional account of King's last night on Earth by Memphis playwright Katori Hall, turns audience attention away from the masses and the protests and the soaring rhetoric to focus instead on the man and his private struggles. It's a sensual meditation on sustained heroism, human frailty, and the cost of freedom. The Olivier-winning play's frank treatment of King's marital infidelities has drawn criticism, but Hall's complex portrait of a man coming to grips with his destiny has resulted in frequent revivals. The Mountaintop returns to the Mid-South this week when Memphis' Hattiloo Theatre and The Halloran Centre team up for a special MLK50 production starring Larry Bates as King and Danielle Truitt as hotel maid/angel Camae.
"Great drama is about human beings clashing onstage and not ideas or myths," Hall told the Flyer in a 2010 interview. "The Mountaintop deals with the man and not the myth," she further explained. "It is about this man named King, excavating his internal demons, wrestling with his God, just like Jacob did in the Bible before he goes to Canaan. This is a spiritual trip for King and for the audience. The more people understand that's the kind of ride they are on, the more open they will be to this interpretation of King's last night on Earth."