Left – Zahra Newman and Bert LaBonté. Photo – Jeff Busby
Playwright Katori Hall was raised in Memphis, the town where, in April 1968, Martin Luther King was killed. Her mother, Carrie Mae, was fifteen at the time and desperately wanted to see King deliver what would be his final speech, I’ve been to the mountaintop, but was forbidden. Hall’s play is her way of fulfilling her mother’s wish to meet King. In the two-hander, Carrie Mae becomes Camae, the maid who brings a cup of coffee to King’s room in Lorraine Motel the night before his assassination, and stays.
The Mountaintop, a mixture of motel room drama, fantasy, comedy and tragedy, is a surprising and powerful piece of theatre. It starts with a shuffling King, exhausted after his speech, attempting to write the next, craving coffee and cigarettes and maybe some carnal comfort. It exposes the weaknesses of the ordinary man behind the icon and the misgivings of the reluctant leader. In the end, it does much more, and gives us an insight into the place of King in the history of activism and black America.
King (Bert LaBonté) and Camae (Zahra Newman), under the direction of Alkinos Tsilimidos, create an intense relationship by using a vast dynamic range. In a mostly static set, their movements are choreographed but natural, their voices and moods changing from playful to fierce or sorrowful. Against the sombre or angry tones of LaBonté’s King, Newman’s Camae teases and goads, using her ribald sense of humour to draw out ‘the preacher man’, as she calls King.
A native of Memphis, the playwright uses language that is familiar to her, dialogue that follows the vernacular and speech patterns of the South. The actors’ accents are convincing, although Newman’s heavy accent is sometimes difficult to follow.
There is a twist to the plot, a magic moment that takes the story away from the familiar. It allows the actors to recreate their characters and move into another realm. LaBonté slowly gathers momentum and transforms from an ordinary man into the King we revere, challenging the audience in a style that sounds uncannily like the recording of the orator himself.
Out of tragic and weighty material Katori Hall has crafted a story that is entertaining, hilarious, touching and inspirational. The fine performances by LaBonté and Newman are supported the MTC’s production team. Tsilimidos, better known as a screen director, brings visual excitement to the play, especially in the final, cinematic scene. Set designer Shaun Gurton and lighting designer Matt Scott convey the claustrophobia of the motel room, together with the pressing sense of the threatening world outside, glimpsed through parted curtains.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Katori Hall
Director Alkinos Tsilimidos
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre, Melbourne
Dates: 1 November – 18 December 2013
Time: Mon/Tues 6.30pm; Wed 1pm & 8pm; Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.