Review: Good Company’s ‘The Mountaintop’ struggles and soars

First Published      Last Updated May 18 2017 05:09 pm

Review » Katori Hall’s new play portrays the human side of Martin Luther King.

Ogden • "We are all the same. … We all scared. Scared of each other. Scared of ourselves. … Scared of losin' somethin' that they've known their whole lives. Fear makes us human. We all need the same basic things."

Martin Luther King Jr. is speaking in Katori Hall's visionary and explosive "The Mountaintop," making its regional premiere at Good Company Theatre.

It is April 3, 1968, the night before King's assassination, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and King has just returned from making his "mountaintop" speech in support of striking sanitation workers. The storm raging outside intensifies his feelings of physical and emotional stress and sense of his mortality, so he strikes up a conversation with Camae, the maid who delivers his room-service coffee.

The imagined encounter between the civil-rights leader and a black working-class woman allows Hall to send the play in several directions. Camae represents a younger, more militant point of view: "Walkin' will only get us so far, Preacher King," she tells him. "It ain't workin'. … We need to be doin' somethin' else." That prompts King to describe the new march he plans in Washington, "the poor people's campaign": "White, black, and Indian all banding together to shame this country. … A rainbow of people chanting, 'Stop the war on Vietnam! Start the war on poverty!' "

The two banter, flirt and eventually it becomes clear that Camae is more than "your ordinary old maid." "I was called to do this," she tells King. "I'm gonna get you through this night." The play then moves into magical realism with varying amounts of success. Hall's idea for where she wants to go is intriguing, but how to get there is sometimes problematic. In its best moments, "The Mountaintop" is strikingly poetic and inspiring, but it also lapses into melodrama and even silliness.

The performances are also inconsistent. Charnee Jamison captures Camae's smart-mouthed sassiness and self-confident manner but struggles with her softer, more sympathetic side. And balancing King's fears for his future with the strength of his belief in his vision and his ability to persuade others to share that belief proves challenging for Jayrod Garrett. He handles King's human, vulnerable qualities with much more assurance than the bravado and charisma of his public persona. The two are at their best when they simply converse as comrades or adversaries. Alicia Washington's low-key direction maintains focus and intensity and keeps both actors always on the same page.

Good Company's intimate performing space also offers pluses and minuses to this production. Washington's unassuming motel-room set makes us feel we are right there with King and Camae on that fateful night, but the play's final scene, where Camae conjures up historical snapshots from the civil-rights movement and King proclaims his vision for the future, cries out for some kind of supporting images or visualization that William Peterson's dramatic lighting cannot satisfy. The persistent thunder of Camille Washington's sound design creates tension, and Peterson's rosy lighting is warm and personal.

In "The Mountaintop," which enjoyed successful runs in London and New York, Hall gives us a down-to-earth portrait of the human side of a legendary American leader and a vivid overview of the movement that shaped his life and ultimately demanded his death. Even with its flaws, it heralds an insightful new voice eager to claim her place in American theater.



‘The Mountaintop’

Although it’s uneven, Good Company’s production of “The Mountaintop” gives us a thought-provoking look at the work of an exciting new American playwright and the legendary leader whose life and death inspired her.

When » Reviewed on May 12; plays Friday and Saturday, May 19-20, at 8 p.m., with 4 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday, May 21

Where » Good Company Theatre, upstairs at 260 Historic 25th St., Ogden

Tickets » $17; goodcotheatre.com; contains adult language

Running time » 90 minutes (no intermission)