Sitting in the seats at the small Invictus Theatre space, waiting for “The Mountaintop” to begin will be a journey of memory for audience members of a certain age. The play is set in Room 306 of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, and low-slung twin beds, a black dial phone, cheap curtains and the valise open on the bed bitterly recall the setting of Martin Luther King’s assassination at the Lorraine in 1968. Emblazoned in our memories is the famous photo of King’s case, styrofoam coffee cups, half-exhausted cigarettes and the TV from the room that photographer Steve Shapiro captured shortly after the killing. Life magazine memorialized the room when it was still an active crime scene, too. The Lorraine is a civil rights museum today.
So even before the play’s action begins, the room looms in front of the audience. One has some expectation of what will happen onstage. But puzzles flood the mind. How will the play deal with King’s state of mind following an angrier-than-usual speech and the intimation that he was too tired, too spent to go on. How will it handle the dalliances Dr. King is reported to have had with women in that room that fateful night? And how might it treat the other icons of the Movement who were traveling with Dr. King, including Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young?
The first answer comes in the first moment of action. King shouts out his door for Abernathy (who is not in the play) to fetch him a pack of Pall Malls, and no other brand. He calls room service for coffee so he can stay up late and finish the draft of a speech to be delivered before the city’s sanitation workers the next day. The play is a work of fantastical imagination, but the Dr. King in it is a human being, not yet a martyr. When his coffee arrives, it is carried in by a coquettish hotel maid who seems both awestruck by the great man, but also willing to play comfortably to his masculine vulnerabilities. She says it’s her first day on the job, but is nevertheless willing to give him the coffee free of charge and to linger in his room. King eyes her up and down and she entertains his flirtations to a point. But only to a point.
Here, dear review reader, I must let you down a bit. There’s a big reveal and it comes rather early in the action and it would be heartless to spoil it. Yet, without saying what it is, I can say that the next ninety minutes are a wonder of smart writing. Playwright Katori Hall has created a two-character play that is a battle of wits and charm. It takes up issues related to King’s lifetime mission, his deep faith and his public refusal to hate matched with his private anger. Much of the dialogue ties directly to the facts of King’s Memphis campaign and his stage in life. One of the most impressive—astounding really—elements of the play is how writer Hall creates such a credible version of the Reverend Doctor King without calling up any of the actual language of his writing or speeches. Using that material is made all but impossible by the King family whose permission—and fees—are required for the use of any copyrighted material they are heir to. No matter. Hall pulls it off. Even the maid inspires with a rousing, bitter sermon critical of white people that she says is the sort King ought to have given in Memphis.
Aaron Reese Boseman directed the show, the intensity of which hardly ever lets up. Though it would have been swell to see Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett play the two roles in the original Broadway production, the Invictus cast, Mikha’el Amin and Ny’ajai Ellison as the maid would be hard to top. The script loses focus toward the end when it takes on all the world’s problems all at once. Then again, King, like us, lived in a world where myriad injustices eventually connect.
“The Mountaintop” at Invictus Theatre Company, 1106 West Thorndale, invictustheatreco.com. Through March 19.