The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall. Directed by Colette Robert. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
A mystical moment with Jordan Mahome and Shelley Fort; photo: provided
"They called me every name but a "child of God."
Shelley Fort as Camae; photo: provided
You are Martin Luther King and you are paranoid. Rightfully so, too. Assassination rumors are in the air; supporters who aren't strong are in the wind. The FBI is against you and you are up against their wall. You search your hotel room for bugging equipment. You ask an assistant who never answers you for a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes (pronounced Paul Maul which is already a bit predictive of what's to come). Your favorite hotel suddenly no longer has room service and you want coffee. You are Martin Luther King on April 3, 1968, in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee; you are alone; you are on edge; your heart is acting up and you have decisions to make about the days to come.
This is where Katori Hall has us at the beginning of her 80 minute 2010 one-act play, "The Mountaintop" which is now playing at the Chester Theatre in Chester, MA. You know, because it is Martin Luther King in April, 1968, that this is not going to be a comedy. Then, suddenly, on the balcony hallway outside his door, a hotel maid appears with King's coffee and everything changes. Once she is inside his room, there is little chance of getting her out again. Shelley Fort is the hotel employee whose badge reads "Carrie Mae" but who goes by the name of Camae. In 1968 Camay was the most popular women's soap, pure white and guaranteeing the "most beautiful complexion at any age." Our camae has that complexion on the face and hands of Shelley Fort who plays the role. Fort is lovely, the most quietly exotic woman I've seen on stage in a long while, not seductive but compelling, not Eurasian or Mulatto but pan-generic, a woman who could be anything and from anywhere. Her voice is magical and her magic (she performs some illusions here) is palpable, always hitting home. This maid, it turns out, is not just a maid but someone mystical with direct phone connection to God. ("She's Black!") Fort is absolutely divine in this role.
For a character harboring secrets, Camae is played with such an openness that when her big secret is finally revealed it is almost a let-down, a pregnant, rather than poignant revelation. It's been showing but we haven't really paid much attention to it. Fort's final major speech is one of proven predictions helped greatly by the visuals designed by Travis George, I believe. It is also reminiscent of the play "An Illiad" which ran on this same stage two summers ago.
King is played by Jordan Mahome, a tall, slender actor who brings the essence of MLK to life with physical strength and a powerful voice. He is also that man who worries, that paranoid individual who cannot believe that things are well. In author Katori Hall's vision of King, he is fallible; he can be hurt and show it; he is not a King-God, or a King-Idol, he is man named King who talks to people about reality and who lives within the bounds of reality. He is also in bondage to to that same force and he has come to realize it. Mahome plays the beauty of the man's soul caught in a human cage of devotion to his work. How he gives King the curiosity to withstand shocks when all seems lost is wonderful; we watch the character instead of the actor as he works out the ways and means of his current experience and all those things he feels are coming but which he will never experience for himself. Mahome is as good as it gets and his ultimate loss of everything is clinically horrible. There is blasphemy in this work and Mahome makes that palatable in the extreme.
Jordan Mahome as Martin Luther King; photo: provided
Shelley Fort and Jordan Mahome; photo: provided
My one problem with the performance may well be mine alone. I expected to be touched by the experience here. I thought I would find the play tearful, moving, involving in that emotional sense, but instead it left me cold. The players are wonderful, charming and delicious and their growing relationship is fascinating. Even when the secrets are on the table, though, there was no pang of regret that my hope for a different kind of relationship was never going to happen. I hate to spoil endings but in the morning after this night these two spend together in his hotel room, he is killed. Knowing that, perhaps, stilled my tears, but even so, I felt nothing for him when that moment came in the play. I think it is well staged, correctly staged, by Colette Robert, the director, but my emotions were turned off for some reason, perhaps the intellectual high of the dialogue. I really don't know.
Earlier in the play he describes his followers and assistants as being "more loyal than a dog." That sentiment, so early in the play, stayed with me through the ending and I wonderred if that attitude about other people set me apart from MLK in the play, took away the deeper identification and that normal need to feel close to the hero of the play. Whatever it was, the play resonates and the players interpret the roles with a completeness that gave the show a "fly-on-the-wall" sensibility.
Colette Robert has done a beautiful job with a difficult set of problems in this play. Fort has a few Penn and Teller type moments and Mahome has places in the play where his work is reminiscent of the finer, more discreet interpretations of Brock Peters. Robert moves them in and out of personal interactions with just the right touch of disaffection. We can see MLK's struggle in this room with two beds and an attractive woman and even post-revelation she poses problems for him that Robert controls with very specific distances between them.
The set by Travis George is perfect and Lara Dubin's lighting is wonderfully atmospheric. Tom Shread's sound design works well and Heather Crocker Aulenback's costumes capture the period in every way possible. It is such a good production and such care has been given by the actors and the director to the script that the end result should be more visceral. For me it seemed to veer to the intellectual instead.
It's a very good play in the hands of very talented people. It is worth a viewing and, depending on what you bring to the theater, it is worth applauding. Chester is closing its season with a play people should rush to see.
The Mountaintop plays at the Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA through August 28. For tickets and information call the box office at 1-800-595-4849 or go on line at www.chestertheatre.org.