Servant. Leader. Activist. Saint. If one were to ask 1,000 different people how they would describe the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is certain that 1,000 different replies would be received.
The clergyman, known best for his nonviolent civil rights efforts, has been immortalized in the minds of many as a man who could do no wrong. Even so, Dr. King was human. Though a triumphant civil rights leader, King was a man. He was human; a side that many people did not see.
In a society where clergy are revered and put on pedestals of unimaginable heights, native Memphian and play-write, Katori Hall, broke the often unspoken barrier in the recent Memphis premier of her play, "The Mountaintop," at the Circuit Playhouse. Inspired by her mother, who was unable to attend King's last speech at Mason Temple, the play gave Hall the opportunity to bring history to life on stage.
"This play is not only an homage to one of our greatest heroes, but also an homage to my mother who – as a living history book – decided to share this story of her deepest regret," said Hall.
Making its debut in Memphis on MLK weekend, viewers were taken back to April 3, 1968, the night before King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel. Set in the Lorraine Motel, audience members were immediately ushered into a scene of a nervous Dr. King preparing for what would be, unbeknownst to him, his last speech.
Pacing the room, feigning for a Pall Mall (cigarette), a nervous King struggled with his message. After placing a call to the front desk to request a newspaper, he was visited by Camae (actress Detra Payne), a housekeeper on her first night of duty.
Keeping King company as he waited for his counterpart to return, Camae fulfilled his desire for a cigarette and the two engaged in playful, seemingly inappropriate, banter. Audience members were drawn to the dynamics between the two characters. Though Camae had great respect for "Dr. King," as she repeatedly referred him in her Southern accent, she also tempted him with her good looks and flirtatious conversation.
In time, things took a turn and the pastor begins to vent in frustration of the ways of the world. In an effort to calm a manic King, Camae calls out to him, "Michael, Michael." King, played by actor Lawrence Blackwell, came to a sudden pause, and went further into rage accusing the maid of being a spy. Michael was the birth name that only few knew about.
Camae soon reveals to King that she is not a maid, but an angel sent by God to bring him to the other side. After much pleading and even a phone call to God, King agrees to go willingly, if Camae will show him the future. In awe and tears, King views images, including Angela Davis, Jessie Jackson, negative stereotypes and the first African-American First Family.
While the play entertained a sold-out crowd, the MLK weekend premier also delivered a powerful message: Memphis, the place of the unfortunate assassination of Dr. King, is the dress rehearsal for the beginning. In a city that some argue is still very much racially divided, there is still work to be done. Although Dr. King was taken from this world in an untimely manner, he left behind the manuscript for civil rights. It is up to the people of Memphis, the people of this nation, to continue writing the story and making history.
The play shows viewers that extraordinary things are done by every day, ordinary people.
"The Mountaintop" will run at The Circuit Playhouse through Feb. 10th.