Plays that “rewrite” history are always intriguing to me. Positioning history as something other than a static set of dates or names or images allows you to draw lines that perhaps weren’t previously there, and to make connections between “then” and “now” that have the capacity to really say something about how we understand our past and what might be wrong with current interpretations. That’s exactly what playwright Katori Hall does in “The Mountaintop.” She compels audiences to think about the events of the past in a new and pretty provocative way. As crafted and produced by Round House Theatre, this historical reimagining boldly asks theatregoers to consider one of the most consequential figures in American history within the context of Round House’s own dynamic interpretation.
The play opens on a rainy night in a Memphis motel room. Paige Hathaway’s set design creates the perfect vibe as far as bringing us into the kind of room that you’re likely to find alongside any highway, but also provides an atmosphere that also portends something just a little deeper and more mysterious. Mysterious is certainly the overriding theme here, at least initially. Martin Luther King Jr. has presumably just finished giving a rousing speech to Memphis sanitation workers. He is exhausted. Beyond this speech, it is years of speeches, rallying, and fighting that are taking their toll on the estimable Dr. King. A maid soon arrives bearing coffee. She also happens to have an extra of his preferred cigarette brand. This maid immediately makes herself at home—perhaps a bit too much at home.
We eventually discover that Camae is not exactly a maid and she is not there to simply tidy up Dr. King’s room. Her job is a bit more intense than that. Sent by God to do Her, yes, Her bidding, Camae, a bona fide angel, must prepare Martin Luther King to cross over into the next life as this is his last day on earth. It is the day right before his assassination. The play combines comedy, historic tragedy, and slice-of-life drama to create a moment in the iconic civil rights leader’s life that presents a creatively imagined portrait, one that offers a very humanized Martin Luther King Jr.
That’s the thing with historical figures. We often don’t look beyond the textbook-worthy moments and larger-than-life personas handed down to us. What Hall repeats though throughout this play is that King was also just a man—a man who smoked too much, had holes in his socks, was given to over-the-top bouts of paranoia, potentially cheated on his wife. He was a man who was flawed but still to be greatly admired. Hall’s dialogue is sharp, funny, and cleverly exceeds the average fare of the typical two-hander back and forth. Ro Boddie as Dr. King and Renea S. Brown as Camae are also far more than just your average two-hander fare.
As King, Boddie does an incredible job presenting a flawed individual capable of making history. There are layers to his performance that are unexpected in the best way possible. The role of Camae demands that the actor have true comedic chops but also the forcefulness and gravitas to pull off being God’s ambassador. Brown bowls you over with her performance, deftly creating a completely realized character—one who makes you laugh and inspires you to think.
Under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the play comes off as a series of powerful and highly memorable moments that when braided together, tell a story we don’t otherwise know. That is the genius of this piece. It is in the gaps that Sonnenberg and company bring to life Hall’s version of history. It is in the theatrical piecing together of this puzzle that we get a sense of who Martin Luther King might have been at his most vulnerable.
Accenting Hathway’s set design are Sherrice Mojgani’s light design, Zavier A.L. Taylor’s projections, and Nick Hernandez’s sound design—understated when required but wonderfully explosive during the more magical moments of this piece. This is a play with some weight and that seems to be the point. The weight of history, however it is told or, in this case, imagined, is all of ours to carry.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
“The Mountaintop” runs through November 5, 2023 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.