Okay, I’m not that grandiose or flip to compare my journey with the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. I did, however, go to the play, The Mountaintop, at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater (CST) this week.
The play, written by renowned African American playwright, Katori Hall, was directed at CST by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and stars Kami Rushell Smith and Maurice Emmanuel Parent. CST houses two theaters under its wings, The Underground Railway Theater, (Artistic Director, Debra Wise), and The Nora Theater Company (Artistic Director, Mary C. Huntington). The Mountaintop was an Underground Railway production.
The entire play takes place in King’s room in the famed Lorraine Motel on the night before he was assassinated. With only the two actors performing, Kami plays Camae, a motel cleaning woman, and Maurice plays the role of Dr. King.
CST is a black box theater whose stage and seating can be rearranged with the change of each play. For The Mountaintop, we are treated to an “alleyway” setting, meaning, in this case, a raised six-inch high by about ten-foot wide platform holding the interior of King’s motel room in the middle of the floor, and the audience seated on both long sides of the platform. This created an intimate, voyeuristic view into the private exchanges between King and Camae. A faux wood-paneled wall, 1960’s pink bathroom sink area, beige carpet, two beds, and a round table with an overflowing cigarette ashtray, and two leather-slung Breuer chairs adjacent to the motel room door, round out the set.
I arrived a few minutes late to the play, and the first thing my eye was drawn to was that overflowing ashtray. Cathy Carr Kelly, CST’s Executive Director, and a friend, had given me a little background on Ms. Hall’s artistic vision for The Mountaintop, and her purposeful risks in humanizing King as a flawed man, not simply a hero who sits high atop a perfect pedestal. King’s incessant smoking throughout the play was the first vice that I anchored onto.
The play opens with Camae coming to King’s room to bring him a cup of coffee that he has ordered. He is in his room with the shades drawn, exhausted after braving a storm to deliver his famed “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech to a crowd of supporters at Memphis’s Mason Temple. King is back in Memphis to show his support for local striking sanitation workers after a previous King led march fell apart when a few of the protestors looted a shop. In the wake of this, a sixteen-year-old, black young man, Larry Payne was shot by police while emerging from a nearby building. No legal proceedings were carried out to bring justice for Payne.
Here we see a tired, anxious King. Anxious about being under surveillance, anxious about being able to follow through on a planned second march for the sanitation workers, anxious about having to be the leader of a movement with rising tension from some who feel King is dividing the civil rights movement with his talk of poverty and union workers. He is anxious people are losing faith in him, and tiring of his passive resistance tactics. He is anxious that people are starting to believe that perhaps it’s time for the ideology and proposed tactics of a Malcolm X, or those of the rising, more militant black power groups.
In the room, as Camae and King speak, we see a flirtatious, challenging Camae, and a side of King, both playful, self-deprecating, and yes, human. Kami as Camae is big, bold and easily strikes up a conversation with Maurice’s approachable King. She tempts him with her hands on her hips, her black-liner-rimmed coquettish eyes, and her sass. Camae irreverently makes fun of his stinky feet, holes in his socks, even the puffiness of his “oratorical” skills. Maurice as King allows us to see the leader relax, and laugh at himself with ease because of Camae, and seems relieved to do so. King even uses the “N” word, when he keeps wondering where Ralph Abernathy (head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) is with the cigarettes King sent him out to buy.
Yes, Camae is no lightweight in the presence of this great leader. She stands up for herself when King seems to condescend to her for being so thoughtful and well-spoken for a housekeeper. Instead she grills King, telling him people are getting tired of his passive resistance, that fighting for the sanitation workers is getting him off track of his civil rights work. She steals the stage when she puts on King’s shoes and jacket, stands firmly atop one of the motel beds, and gives King a lesson on oratory, with her “Fuck the White Man,” speech.
In response, King jokes with Camae, “so, you really think that is what I should say…?”, but then takes a serious tone as he thinks aloud about how difficult it has been, despite the support of many white people, to truly get them to understand the black struggle, and how they can help and work together with King and other civil rights leaders, to envision a better future for all.
Camae has enlightened King, and then when she literally lights one of her cigarettes with her breath, it is in this pivotal moment we learn that Camae is not merely a housekeeper, but an angel sent from God to take King to heaven.
What ensues is first disbelief, which Camae proves through her knowledge of King’s affairs both professional and personal, if you know what I mean. She asks him what else he needs for proof–for her to “cry flowers?” When King gets over his frantic paranoia that Camae is not a spy for the FBI, he begins to bargain for his life.
There is a hilarious, yet moving scene with Camae, and then King, on the phone with God, who we learn is a woman–a woman who must keep her word with those whose time has come. Again, King has to be brought back down to earth, and remember the very own words that he used in the famed sanitation workers’ march, I AM A MAN. Camae continually reminds King that though he is a masterful leader of a most-important movement, he is simply, “a man,” and that life, and the movement can and must go on without him, that it is time to pass the baton.
It is here where we meet with tenderness and vulnerability. Camae kneels to the ground and speaks softly the words of King’s daughter, “Bunny,” who Camae has heard say, …”don’t let my Daddy die alone.” As she speaks, tears well in her eyes, and crocuses blossom up through the pale, nubby carpet–a beautiful symbol that goes beyond the hope and renewal each spring brings after the dead of winter.
Then, when we almost believe that King has been tempted by the seductress angel, when he is but inches from her atop the motel bed, still begging not to be taken, and even utters, “I never knew death could be so beautiful..” instead, King crumbles into Camae’s arms and weeps. She holds him. It is as if he has given himself permission to let go–to say, yes, this has been so hard on me, on my family–the fear of being spied on, the fear of being killed, the daily struggle to organize and lead a national and worldly mission. Yet, it is fear that King says is the one thing all of man has in common. And, he tells us, love–radical love, will be the thing to save us.
King tells Camae, that he will go if he can have a look at the future–that he needs to see what is to come, before he can go. Camae eventually agrees, and like the montages of images that we remember from King’s speeches that urge us to work together to end war, poverty and to have equality and love no matter the color of one’s skin, video images flash in front of us and King, on the walls of his room.
King is in awe as we look and listen: another Kennedy’s assassination, Angela Davis, the 1968 Olympics black power salute, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Shaft, Run DMC, MTV, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, the crack epidemic, Marion Barry caught, Rodney Davis..’can’t we all get along..”, OJ’s white Bronco, Sadam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, 9/11, President Barack Obama.
King could noow leave us. He appeared mesmerized and pleased with what he saw. I felt slightly confused, because while there were many accomplishments and positive, progressive turns in history post-King, there were many moments of ill-will and tragedy.
Right after the performance I asked Cathy about this. Her reply was that, “…King was still looking. He was looking beyond what we see now. He could see what we haven’t seen yet…”
After the play, I walked across the bridge that crosses the Charles River from Cambridge to Boston. Ice chunks floated in the choppy waters below. The wind whipped bitterly across my face, and blew my hair wildly, blurring my vision at times.
Again, I knew better not to imagine myself as Dr. King, but I couldn’t help but think, in a new light, about the struggle he, as one individual human being, had to endure to fight for the rights of others. Two words came to mind: Tough and beautiful. It was a struggle for me to walk through the wind that pushed against my every step. Yet, the sun shone through the crisp clouds and blue sky, reminding me of the force and beauty of nature. A force that always makes me feel connected to something greater than myself, as well as to all other beings in this living world.
While today was the last day of the CST run of The Mountaintop, I am hoping that you will see it, if Katori Hall’s play comes to your area. I was very moved by this thought provoking, and risky look at King, which really is a look at ourselves, in all of our glory and failings. I continue to think about how I, how all of us, can continue to honor King by picking up the baton.
SOURCES/Links: www.centralsquaretheater.com, Central Square Theater program bill, photo credit Matthew Clark
www.katorihall.com, www.megansz.com, www.kamirushellsmith.com, www.mauriceparent.com