In The Mountaintop, the provocative one-act about Martin Luther King Jr., now playing in the sixth-floor studio at the Wyly Theatre, we learn that the revered civil rights leader smoked Pall Malls on the sly and had smelly feet. He also had a thing for hot coffee and a wandering eye for hot women. Maybe, on a rainy April night in 1968, he also had a premonition of his assassination at age 39.
Playwright Katori Hall opens her intentionally misleading play with King alone in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It is the eve of his murder, which we know, but he doesn’t. As a thunderstorm rages, King paces the beige carpet, practicing an upcoming speech about how “America is going to hell.” He’s already delivered the one called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” a stirring burst of oratory in support of a garbage workers’ strike.
King, played with sexy swagger by Hassan El-Amin in the Dallas Theater Center production, is a restless cat, bristling with nervous energy. He exits to the bathroom for a quick (and audible) piss, then rings down to the front desk to ask for a pot of the coffee he craves. Room service is done for the day but King’s powers of persuasion work. Who delivers the coffee to King and what transpires between them over the play’s intermission-less 90 minutes is what keeps us guessing right up to The Mountaintop’s stunning conclusion.
The swerve arrives with the knock on King’s door. The second character in this two-hander is Camae, a young maid played by Tiana Johnson. It’s Camae’s first day of work at the motel, and she’s bringing more than the java. In her tight uniform dress, she knows she’s pretty. She’s confident and flirty, not at all reverent around the famous Dr. King. “I cuss worse than a sailor with the clap,” she tells King after rattling off a string of four-letter words.
Confessing that he doesn’t like being alone, King keeps delaying Camae’s departure from his room. She seems in no hurry to leave either. He bums some Pall Malls from her and a frisson of sexual attraction buzzes between them as she tells him to inhale the cigarette “like it’s goin’ out of style.” From her dress pocket, Camae pulls a flask of whiskey, slugging some back and then pouring the rest into King’s coffee cup. He asks her opinion about his mustache — shave or not?
For 40 minutes or so, these two engage in a puzzling and perilously intimate back and forth. Is King going to bed this girl? Or is he getting set up by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI? The play has King becoming suspicious, angrily overturning chairs looking for bugging equipment and accusing Camae of being a government spy working “incognegro.” Perhaps she’s “putting hippie pills” in his coffee to knock him out. But Camae puts him at ease and even mocks his stentorian speaking style by donning his suit coat and speechifying — “Fuck the white man! I say fuck’em!” she yells — from atop one of the double beds. King is amused by her wanton behavior and the two dissolve into a giggly pillow fight, like kids at a slumber party.
Halfway into The Mountaintop, it starts to dawn that we’ve been tricked. Camae has been seducing us and not Dr. King. We have assumed she was one thing; turns out she’s something else entirely. Playwright Hall, with some verbal and visual dexterity, suddenly sends her play on a detour out of reality and into another realm. The twist isn’t all that original. Dickens used it in A Christmas Carol, though in Hall’s version, her main character doesn’t awake to a better, happier life but to certain death on the motel balcony.
(When this play debuted in London in 2009, it was a hit, winning critical raves and the 2010 Olivier Award as best new play. The following year, Broadway critics and audiences didn’t buy the premise and it was a flop despite the casting of two movie stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.)
As it sinks in that the play isn’t a fact-based bio-drama, it takes some adjusting to turn off linear thinking. But at DTC, in the close environs of the studio space, we trust the two fine actors onstage to show us the way, and they do. The play lifts off from grounded drama to the dreamlike journey of two complicated souls and the performances of El-Amin and Johnson explode like fireworks.
Director Akin Babatunde and his actors have found music in Hall’s sometimes too-glib dialogue, especially in Camae’s final speech, a powerful, impassioned rap about notable moments in American black history. Johnson, still a grad student in SMU’s drama program, is terrific, all long limbs and pouty red lips. She makes Camae’s transition from smack-talking maid to something grander a beautiful thing to watch. El-Amin, a DTC company actor who did his best work last season in two plays at African American Rep, grasps what was warm and charismatic about MLK, without trying to imitate him. His chemistry with Johnson crackles.
Excellent design work for this production includes scenic artist Bob Lavallee’s detailed rendering of Room 306, which is enhanced with the same sort of magical extras Katori Hall has written into her storyline. Lighting by Alan Edwards and sound by David Lanza create the flashes and crashes of a lightning storm. Chase York’s collage of projections late in the play seem to double the size of the stage.
A final whoosh makes the motel room disappear entirely, leaving us to gaze at swirling galaxies behind the martyred King, a marvelous and moving visual that is one more unexpected turn in a divine evening of theater.