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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reaching 'The Mountaintop' at Centerstage

Myxolydia Tyler as Camae and Shawn Hamilton as Dr. King

The timing of the Centerstage’s presentation of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop could not have been better.  The two-person fictionalized play about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, ably directed by Centerstage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, brackets the national celebration of the civil rights leader’s birthday, the second inauguration of the first African-American president in U.S. history—a summit that could not have been climbed had Dr. King not taken on the struggle—and runs well into Black History Month.
Playwright Hall noted “This isn’t the ‘I Have a Dream’ King.  This is King, the man; not the myth.  I want people to see that this extraordinary man—who is actually quite ordinary—achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we are, as a people, interact with each other.”

Indeed, the portrait of Dr. King in this play is that of an ordinary individual—a smoker, his feet smell, he lies to yet he is very much in love with his wife—challenged by the burden of leading his followers to “the promised land.”
Neil Patel’s set is designed to replicate that of Room 306 at the rather seedy Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night before Dr. King was assassinated.  Complete with coral-colored drapes and matching bed spreads, cheesy motel pictures on the wall and a door that opens up to that fateful balcony, the set becomes the venue for the entire play and a showcase for two outstanding actors. 

Shawn Hamilton and Myxolydia Tyler make their Centerstage debuts with this production.  Both have considerable acting experience and that was clearly demonstrated throughout the play. 

On a stormy April 3, 1968 where the rain is seen cascading outside the balcony door and flashes of  lightning and claps of thunder appear throughout, Dr. King (Hamilton) has returned to his room he shares with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.  He had just delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple in connection with the Memphis sanitation workers strike. 

Tired, somewhat ill, and disappointed by the low turnout at his speech, Dr. King orders up some coffee.  He mutters, “Why America is going to hell” over and over, probably working on a future speech, as he paces and peeks outside waiting for his close associate Rev. Abernathy to bring him Pall Malls.

A motel maid named Camae (Tyler) appears with the coffee and the two, a bit wary of each other at first, begin to connect.  Each time Camae leaves after what appears to be the logical conclusion of a conversation, lightning flashes and thunder rings outside that not only prevents her from exiting but elicits a reflexive ducking from Dr. King.  You see, he has been getting more and more death threats as his movement progresses and it’s getting to him.
Camae is a feisty, spunky and sometimes foul-mouthed young woman who after a bit of intimidation from speaking to this national figure, she becomes more confident.  Dr. King is flirtatious while Camae struggles to resist temptation, resulting in some comical exchanges.  The conversations ascend to headier topics, such as race relations, violence versus peaceful approaches, and hauntingly, Dr. King’s examination of his own mortality.

These interactions are hilarious with the comedic balance tilting towards Camae.  She has tons of sass; Dr. King, solid and steady but clearly apprehensive on several levels, play off her effectively.  At one juncture you would think The Mountaintop is a comedy.  It’s not.  But the humorous barbs that propel the play and enhance the character development sets up the second half, where a shocking twist in the plot occurs that will not be disclosed here. 
Hamilton and Tyler bring a tremendous amount of chemistry to their performances.  Tyler’s role as Camae is more complex than Hamilton’s King and seemingly has more lines overall.  Her southern voice inflections help work these lines well, and her facial expressions and mannerisms add even more.   Tyler’s soliloquy where she offers her version of a King-like speech is a highlight.

Hamilton’s Martin Luther King is presented almost exactly how one recalls the civil rights icon or remembers from footage.  He is dignified but very human in his weaknesses, consumed with the responsibility of fostering social and economic change, and appropriately worried about his fate.  His part calls for humor but nowhere as much as Camae.  In this play both Hamilton and Tyler put on an acting clinic.
The Mountaintop premiered in London in 2009 to critical acclaim and won the Olivier Best New Play Award.  It opened on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on September 22, 2011 to mixed reviews.  Several productions have since been staged in various regional venues around the U.S.

At the conclusion of the heart-thumping climax to The Mountaintop at Centerstage, the actors (and creative team that included the excellent work of lighting director Scott Zielinski) received a resounding standing ovation envisaging a promising Baltimore run.

Running Time. One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission.
The Mountaintop plays through February 24 at Centerstage’s Head Theatre, 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore.  For information and tickets call the Box Office at 410-332-0033 or visit online.

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