We remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for many things, but being human is not often among them. Fear, anger, frustration, loneliness — the man was so good at hiding these feelings in public that it’s hard to even imagine him yelling, cowering, even laughing out loud.
But we get to see him do all these things and more in Katori Hall’s incredibly moving evocation of MLK’s last night on earth, The Mountaintop. Set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., the play has only two characters — Dr. King and a hotel maid, Camae, who comes to bring him coffee and ends up staying longer than she intended. Throughout their visit, Dr. King makes his humanity clear not only to us, the audience, but finally to himself as well.
Recent Charleston transplant Kyle Taylor portrays the exhausted, frustrated King. From the moment he enters the stage through the door of the motel room, Taylor’s King is the picture of world-weariness, having just finished giving a speech calling for sanitation workers’ rights. He works on a sermon called “Why America is Going to Hell,” and calls to his best friend to go buy him a pack of Pall Malls. He is tired from traveling, from speaking, from the death threats and threats to his family, from feeling helpless. And we can tell all of this within the first few minutes, simply from Taylor’s drawn face.
Taylor’s acting partner is College of Charleston professor Joy Vandervort-Cobb, who plays the funny, easygoing maid Camae. She is saucy and sassy, and precisely what the depressed King needs to help him forget some of the weight he’s carrying. Though at first his interest in her is not exactly wholesome, gradually the relationship deepens and she makes him laugh, challenges him, and finally, forces him to confront the truth of his humanity.
The Mountaintop offers us a rare glimpse into what the private King might have looked like, and Taylor runs with this opportunity, embracing the character’s flaws and fears as openly as he does his strengths. When King picks up the phone to call room service, listening to the dialtone and unscrewing the mouthpiece to check for bugs, your heart breaks a little bit; later, when a crack of thunder sounds and King ducks, clutching his chest, fearing a gunshot, it breaks some more. Taylor does absolute justice to what playwright Hall has done with this play, which is no easy task. She’s taken one of our most beloved public figures out of the pulpit and into his private life, which was plagued by justifiable paranoia, guilt at leaving his family, and anger at how people just didn’t seem to care about the cause.
Vandervort-Cobb, always a firecracker on stage, is made for this role. She has just the right mixture of motherliness, sex appeal, and spark to make Camae exactly what she’s supposed to be — a source of comfort in a time of great need. You may find yourself hoping that King really did have someone like Camae with him on his last night, someone to take his mind off things and offer a good belly laugh or two before it all ended.
PURE artistic director Sharon Graci directs The Mountaintop beautifully, trusting in the play’s simplicity and making good use of movement to keep the action going — even though the characters are in a single hotel room for the entire performance. The final sequence, in particular, in which King gets a chance to see some of what the future holds, is extremely well-done.
This is a play that anyone with an interest in King or the Civil Rights Movement owes it to themselves to see.