In ‘The Mountaintop,’ an imagining of MLK’s last night

Sep. 19, 2013 @ 02:44 PM

In “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s play about the last night of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, just two actors are on stage for the 90-minute production. It’s quick and long at the same time, said Cedric Mays, the actor portraying King in the production by PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, opening Saturday night. Without an intermission, it just “goes, goes, goes” without even a water break, he said.

Joining Mays on stage as King is a fictional character, a maid named Camae, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis that night of April 3, 1968. She is portrayed by New York actress Lakisha May. Mays lives in Chicago, and this is their first time working together. They are directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who last directed “Raisin in the Sun” during PlayMakers’ last season. “The Mountaintop” is co-produced by Triad Stage in Greensboro, and after its run ends Oct. 6 in Chapel Hill, it will take a week off before returning to the stage, this time in Greensboro.
Mays, May and Myrick-Hodges joined Jeff Meanza, PlayMakers’ associate artistic director, at the Durham County Library this week for a discussion about the upcoming production.
Meanza said “The Mountaintop” is an imagining of Martin Luther King’s last night on earth that is a deceptively challenging play. What begins as two people in a room becomes something quite different, he said. The play is billed as a visitation from a mysterious woman that leads King “to confront his innermost thoughts and fears on the stormy evening before his assassination.” It debuted on Broadway in 2011, with Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett.
May said that to prepare for the role, she had been listening to music of the era by James Brown, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. Camae is a woman opposite of King, she said, with a checkered past and definitely not of his class.
“My character is someone who lives on the margins but is very smart,” May said. While Mays is portraying someone who already exists – King -- Camae will just say and do anything, she said.
Myrick-Hodges said the play is not about Martin Luther King the icon. Rather, part of it is about how you get people to leave the play wanting to be better people, she said. There’s also an element of what you do with your down time when you travel all the time.
“That loneliness is something interesting about the play,” Myrick-Hodges said. You get bored, she said, and it’s about how you connect to people you don’t know at all.
Myrick-Hodges said that playwright Hill didn’t write anything disrespectful of King, and the play is charming, funny, poignant and sincere.
At the discussion, an audience member asked about playgoers coming in with a preconceived idea about King. Everyone does, said Myrick-Hodges, who was born two years after his assassination.
We look at famous people and want them to be this one thing, she said, when they are not just one thing.
“But he started a movement that allowed the three of us to be in the room with most of you,” she said, gesturing at herself, Mays and May, who are African-American, and the library audience that was mostly white.
Mays said the play allows people to see King outside the iconic pictures of him always wearing a suit, even at home.
“Outside all that – who is he?” Mays said.

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: “The Mountaintop”
WHEN: Sept. 18-Oct. 6
WHERE: Paul Green Theatre
UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Chapel Hill
TICKETS: www.playmakersrep.org
919-962-PLAY (7529)