As the sunlight began to dim at the Stephenson Amphitheater in the Raleigh Rose Garden, a neon sign reading “Lorraine MOTEL’ buzzed on. Piped-in Motown music faded into segments from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s infamous Mountaintop speech, originally delivered in Memphis the day before he was assassinated in 1968. Abruptly, an unassuming man in a mackintosh flung open the hotel room door, partially entered, then turned back to holler at an unseen companion for some cigarettes. Against the dignified, statuesque, history-book vision of MLK, is pitted a depiction of a vulnerable and mundane Preacher King – someone who is weak in the face of his desires, who enjoys a dirty joke sometimes, and who is sensitive about his pride. Here he is a person, not a monument.
Directed by Phillip Bernard Smith and produced by Raleigh’s Little Theater, The Mountaintop is a one-act historical/fictional drama which takes place during the final day of Martin Luther King’s life. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Christopher Neill Bailey, Sr. delivers a performance that maintains a delicate equilibrium between levity and weightiness. Bailey’s performance is complemented by that of his co-star, Daphne M. Trevathan, who plays Camae, a housekeeper at the Lorraine. Together, Bailey’s and Tevathan’s physical and emotional coordination is ballet-like in its expertise and economy. While MLK provides a gravitas that grounds the action within the “reality” of the play, Camae accounts for most of the narrative action in Katori Hall’s script, and her spirited antics and dynamism carry both actors to the emotional pitches required during play’s denouement. Moreover, Trevathan’s impish antics provide a philosophical foil to this“Preacher King” (as she calls him unceremoniously).
All this is not to suggest that the actors’ performances were faultless. Often the physical chemistry of the characters was more overpowering than the dialogue itself, and the lines seemed somewhat emotionless or affected by comparison; some dialogue was rendered inaudible by a couple of microphone malfunctions, and a few lines were seemingly forgotten. Regardless, it is miraculous that the contingencies of such demanding roles, compounded with the complexities of producing a show in an outdoor arena, did not produce more mishaps.
Even so, the general ambiance of the amphitheater seemed to augment the narrative. As darkness fell, a warm breeze wafted through Sonya Leigh Drum’s set, and Ryann Norris’ lighting design began to illuminate its pastel wallpaper with warm tones. Lightning bugs began to flicker in and out of view, while feathers from an earlier scene whirled around Camae and MLK’s feet. It paints a somewhat ethereal image of Martin Luther King’s last night on Earth, all the while disallowing any clear distinction between reality and fantasy.
Though the historical analogy to MLK’s assassination is obvious, the finale comes across as a dense, visually intensive presentation that is a sharp contrast to the naturalism of the earlier scenes. Perhaps this is intentional on the part of the director – a fitting portrait of someone whose life’s work was in fact unfinished and unresolved. Ultimately, there are no easy answers here, only a lingering question: “The baton is passed, whether we like it or not. But now what is to be done?”
Photo credit: WWReaves Photography.
Pictured: Christopher Neill Bailey, Sr. as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Mountaintop runs through June 19th at Raleigh Little Theatre. For ticket information visit https://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/the-mountaintop/.
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