Ascending dreamer: The Mountaintop at Heritage Theatre Festival is one for the heart

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Enoch A. King plays Martin Luther King Jr., and Suzette Azariah Gunn is Camae in The Mountaintop at the Ruth Caplin Theatre through August 5. Enoch A. King plays Martin Luther King Jr., and Suzette Azariah Gunn is Camae in The Mountaintop at the Ruth Caplin Theatre through August 5.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and several days before the first anniversary of last summer’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, UVA’s Heritage Theatre Festival unveiled its production of The Mountaintop, a play that reimagines the final hours of King’s life and celebrates the humanity of its hero. Written by Katori Hall and debuted in 2009, the story is told anew by masterful director Kathryn Hunter-Williams and presented as a gift: medicine designed to rejuvenate hearts in a hurting community and divided country.

When the lights go down, James Brown is singing. When they go up, we hear rain. It’s April 3, 1968, and the red neon sign of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, glows like a boomerang. Inside Room 306, we see two twin beds, one made up neatly, the other a mess. Crumpled balls of paper dot the carpet; legal pads, pens, ashtrays and coffee pots litter the Art Deco furniture. This is a thinking man’s hotel room.

When King enters, you feel pressure swollen like the humid weight of the storm settle on your shoulders. The tension is high, fraught with dramatic irony, which might be why you laugh so hard when he takes off his shoes, wrinkles his nose and comments aloud about the smell.

Alone with his thoughts, frustrations and persistent cough, the condemned man sheds his pulpit uniform—black suit, brown tie, black shoes—with the resignation of a road warrior. This isn’t the first empty motel room he’s retired to after rekindling hope for a weary and worried audience, but it will be his last. Because the church he exited on this rainy night, the small crowd he complains of to the maid who brings him coffee, was the Mason Temple in Memphis. The speech to which he gave so much energy will come to be known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” a prophetic charge to his people to press on to the promised land, the mountaintop King saw in his dreams, even if he should not make it there with them. He would be shot and killed just 31 hours after delivering it.

So here we are in the motel, trapped between prophesy and martyrdom, listening to the leader of the American civil rights movement urinate (behind closed doors) while we wait for him to die. It’s a testament to the creativity of the playwright and the fine work of this production that nervous tension need only carry us so far. Soon enough the story morphs, unlocking deeper dimensions of attention, rousing us from trainwreck-stupors and absorbing our whole hearts.

Enoch A. King, who plays MLK, brings remarkable range and his own spin to the iconic character. Though his bearing, oratorical skills and mustache evoke an eerie likeness to King, he never attempts to carbon copy him. Instead, he makes him accessible, shifting from tenacity to flirtation to paranoia to bombast, sometimes on a dime. Most remarkable is the way he deepens as the show progresses. By the time he delivers his final speech, you would swear MLK himself was onstage.

Suzette Azariah Gunn’s Camae, a housekeeper tasked with attending to King during her first day on the job, is a seemingly inadvertent companion for his final night on earth. Gunn delivers a powerful performance, matching King’s fiery sermons with her own passionate arguments on changing the world. She, too, is larger than life somehow, speaking on behalf of society: sharing Black Panther beliefs, roasting King’s “bougie“ assumptions, referring to God as a “she” with steadfast conviction, and ultimately carrying a secret set to redeem us all.

Credit goes to Hunter-Williams, scenic designer Raul Abrego, lighting designer Latrice Lovett and sound designer Michael Rasbury for the show’s captivating portrayal of an ordinary world that teeters on the edge of something extraordinary. The whole experience is elevated (and ultimately transformed) by light shifts, clever sets and the explosions of thunder that set King shaking. When the show crescendos, thanks in large part to the crew, it leaves us light years from where we began.

I’m loathe to give away the play’s significant surprises but suffice to say, I cried for none of the expected reasons but because, at the same instant Katori’s plot shed its literal trappings, my mind and heart woke up.

This production is delivered in such a time and place and way that you leave the theater changed. It’s hard to know if you’ve traveled forward or backward in time or simply deeper into yourself, awake and aware and alive, like King himself, until the very end.

Reflecting on the personal costs and challenges of his work, lamenting the misunderstandings he perceives in his followers, King asks in a grief-soaked voice, “Why me?” When Camae rejoins “Why not you?” his answer is ready: “Because I’m just a man.”

The message is clear: No one who changes the world is born with the suprahuman ability to do so. To fight for equality, and keep on fighting, is a brave choice made by flawed humans, and no one is absolved from the responsibility of making that decision.

For evil, as Camae reminds us, is not a who but a what. And 50 years later, the world remains as beautiful and as ugly as King knew it to be. It would appear the mountaintop was never a destination nor permanent citadel but rather a possibility, available in every moment for those who choose to go there.

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