Saturday, April 19, 2014

Martin Luther King went to the mountaintop, but IRT play tries to climb higher

There's no underestimating the risks Katori Hall assumed in writing a play about Martin Luther King Jr.'s last hours on Earth.

"The Mountaintop" — now at Indiana Repertory Theatre through April 27 — tackles more than a martyred historical figure many people regard with reverence. The young minister who defined the American civil-rights movement and established the value of nonviolent protest as an agent of social change is almost inadequately defined by the cliche "larger than life."

Camae (Tracey N. Bonner) bemuses Martin Luther King Jr. (David Alan Anderson).
And yet drama has to right-size even heroes to effect a genuine emotional exchange between actors and spectators. Ms. Hall has done that with determination: Her MLK comes onstage with a weakness for cigarettes, raging semi-jocularly at Ralph David Abernathy to bring him some Pall Malls.  He soon displays  a susceptibility to female charms, as well as fear of thunderstorms and the FBI (both well-founded) and a weariness unto death that engenders deep doubts as to the efficacy of his mission.

This flawed man is nonetheless a hero, and the play mirrors both the flaws and the heroism. Set in the Memphis' Lorraine Motel, which has since 1968 become a kind of national shrine, "The Mountaintop" benefits here from the all-out performances of David Alan Anderson as King and Tracey N. Bonner as Camae, tussling titanically on the night before King's assassination. IRT associate artistic director Courtney Sale directs.

Katori Hall's play imagines what happened the day before this fateful appearance.
Who's Camae? I hear you ask. The uniformed motel maid is Hall's creation, vital to the story she wants to tell. Camae enters Room 306 in response to the pastor's request for coffee. He's attempting to fuel his mind to complete a hell-raising speech about the country he loves and often despairs of.

What Camae also is forces me to violate widely accepted "spoiler etiquette" in order to write about "The Mountaintop" at all. I feel justified in doing so because Camae's identity as more than a saucy motel employee becomes clear fairly early in the action, not at the end. Thus, much of "The Mountaintop"'s substance rests on Camae's revelation that she is an angel, an emissary of God come to call her (the pronoun is repeatedly underlined) servant home.

Whatever place angels may have in a person's theology, I hope many of us recognize that the use of angels in today's popular culture is kitsch. The most common perception, which Hall shares, is that angels are beatified human beings returned from the heavenly afterlife at the behest of the Almighty. Ghosts are also kitsch, but their appeal can never be exhausted in popular or high art because everyone feels the presence of dear departed ones in daily life. It takes a major leap of faith to elevate them to angelic status, though doing so doubtless comforts many believers.

The materiality and presence of human traits in angels goes way back, but it's still important to realize that the dramatic plaything Hall makes of Camae is a far cry from the being so crucial to the event Christians are celebrating this weekend. In Matthew, it is an angel with a "countenance...like lightning" who descends from heaven, rolls back the stone, and tells the two Marys that Jesus has risen from the dead. The other synoptic gospels make the messenger's identity ambiguous by saying the good news is conveyed by one white-robed young man (Mark) or two (Luke).

In Hall's imagination, a recently deceased human being can quickly be reprogrammed to carry out an angelic mission. I respect spoiler etiquette enough not to reveal why Camae is particularly suited to the task. Quite a lot of "The Mountaintop" builds on how much Camae and Martin come to know about each other's earthly trials, then moves that relationship onto a supernatural plane. This lofty plateau will be taken for "spiritual" by some of the show's patrons, but to me it felt manipulative and borderline farcical (especially in Martin's contentious phone conversation with God, after Camae has dialed a lengthy series of numbers to put him through).

The sound and lighting design (the work of Tom Horan and Kate Leahy, respectively) is bent toward maximizing the wonders of King's encounter with his fate. It works well, and near the end gets boosted into a dramatically superfluous, amplified narration in list form of events and people between King's death and today. That's accompanied by a rapidly shifting photographic montage on translucent screens that suddenly surround the stage. The doomed minister is granted the vision to reward his extraordinary service to others and his grudging acceptance of the fate that will end it all.

Hall uses an awful lot of stage time having King complain about being cut off just when he's about to bring his broadened vision of social justice to the nation's attention by supporting the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. There is so much more he needs to do, he protests.

At this point, a unique prophet and driver of social change is reduced almost too much in stature. Any one of us (apart from the terminally ill), if informed of our particular demise by Someone From Beyond, would whine about it. What King could have accomplished is arguably greater than the putative deeds of most who die too young.

But who wouldn't try to argue God out of such a seemingly arbitrary, premature decision? And wouldn't a man as devout as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., facing eternity, be more likely to ask for redemption than for the dubious privilege of continuing his earthly struggle?

In sum, it's not in the early part of "The Mountaintop" that King is cut down to size. The interweaving of his weakness and his strength is well-handled. But the intrusiveness of the angel and her bad news takes him down too far, because his sense of injustice becomes wholly personal and private.

When King at the end comes to the front of the stage and twice asks for an "Ay-men" to his vision for America, he gets it — and deserves it. But, whatever honor the playwright may have intended, he also deserves to be free of an angelic visitation that makes him a pawn in some feminized deity's cruel game.

 [Photo credit: Zach Rosing]