On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on Washington and delivered a speech:
“I dream that my four grandchildren will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
On August 30, 1963, the FBI’s internal intelligence office sent a note to its team: “We must mark [King] now as the most dangerous negro in the future of this nation.”
And it began the murder of the man who fought peacefully for equal rights, his journey ending the day a coward targeted and fatally injured Dr King as he stood on a balcony outside his room on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel. It was April 4, 1968.
Now, if you’re inclined to think that The top of the mountain explores who shot King and why, or perhaps the conspiracies surrounding King’s assassination, or an artwork to glorify Dr. King’s message, you’d be wrong. It’s a portrait of the flawed man behind the civil rights movement. It is clear and not so simple.
Our story begins on the evening of April 3, in King’s room at the Lorraine Motel, with King (Cortez Johnson) desperately searching for coffee and cigarettes. He clearly knows he’s being watched, he’s aware of the forces trying to stop him, and he checks electronics everywhere.
It’s late at night, which we know from Derrick McDaniel’s wonderful light design with moonlight streaming through the window and door of Thomas’ incredibly realistic 1960s hotel bedroom set L. Valach (spoiler, it looks like a Motel 6 today) before King walks into the room, closes both the door and the curtains, and makes a phone call to get that cup of coffee. He is told that room service is closed, but he manages to convince them to have someone bring him a cup of coffee.
A young black maid, Camae (Shanté DeLoach), arrives with her coffee, and she has Pall Mall’s King’s brand of cigarettes, and our game is in full swing. Camae is a real gun with a naughty sense of humor and a chubby mouth and when King flirts with her, she manages to keep his interest while avoiding his advances. Before we get to the conclusion of our play, we learn that Camae is not what she seems, nor what King thinks she is.
You will have to see the show to discover the rest of the plot. I’ll tell you that the playwright, Katori Hall, uses a conceit that playwrights are told not to use, but thank goodness she was a playwright young enough not to listen. Sometimes things that aren’t supposed to work actually work.
Johnson, as king, avoids being a caricature and gives us a glimpse of the paranoid, womanizing man behind the civil rights leader. As we have learned over time, no one – not even Mother Teresa – is without flaws. In fact, a 2018 article in Roosterproclaimed “Truth be told, Mother Teresa was actually a pretty shitty human being.”
But King wasn’t a shitty human being, he was just a human being. And it’s a tough job portraying the man behind such a charismatic and well-known leader, and Johnson does a wonderful job portraying the man instead of the icon.
DeLoach’s character is made entirely of whole cloth, and she breathes life into Camae with delightful abandon. We learn that she did not have a good life, a story that she shares with charm and humor although there is nothing humorous about it. It is both real and ethereal. It’s a memorable performance from DeLoach.
Director Michael Shaw, as usual, elevates his cast with his direction while delivering stellar production values: costumes by Frank Cazares, fantastic video and sound design by Clark Duggar, with a crew complemented by Lynda Shaeps, wigs and makeup ; scenic artist Tom O’Brien; props by Greg Thorneycroft, graphic design by Dennis Wodzisz, and props by stage manager Nathan Cox, who has an enormous amount of lighting and sound cues to call upon. While a good piece on its own, it’s the sum of all the parts of this production that elevates it above being a character piece into a work of art.
The top of the mountain reminds us that heroes have flaws. They did good things and often did “bad” things. It’s just the nature of gods and man. And if I had to make an educated guess, it would be that Katori Hall would have given this production two big enthusiastic thumbs up for handling its words and presenting its message with this very thoughtful production.
The top of the mountain definitely worth the climb, although we never see King make it to the top. On a personal note, I hope we get there one day soon.
*All photos by David A. Lee
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