Katori Hall’s celebrated play, “The Mountaintop,” marries the real and the mythical in a two-person drama that re-imagines the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.
On April 3, 1968, the night before he is felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn., King is visited in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel by a maid who has brought him coffee. But Camae, a chirpy, flirtatious cross between a Motown backup singer and a church usher with a surprisingly tart tongue, is no ordinary hotel help.
She seems to know King as well as he knows himself. While coquettishly respectful, she calls him and his kids by the intimate names and nicknames they use for each other. She has a plentiful supply of the Pall Mall cigarettes he craves. And she knows just what to say to calm him when fear brings him to his knees.
Camae has come to visit King for a spiritual purpose that the good minister does not divine at first. And so he flirts with her, his eyes lingering on her ripe body. We see him thinking, often, about where the encounter may lead.
Camae (Erika LaVonn) is the supernatural heart of “Mountaintop,” which opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater under the aegis of Penumbra. The 90-minute one-act drama is nominally about King (played by James T. Alfred), who said in his very last speech that “I’ve been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land.”
But in director Lou Bellamy’s flawless production, this absorbing play is all about LaVonn’s Camae. She is a ball of mischievous, teasing energy as she humors Alfred’s King like a cat that plays with its food. Camae knows his buttons and she pushes them at will, almost as if testing him so he can get to his spiritual essence. And she takes great pleasure in doing it.
When she walks away from him on occasion, it is with the confidence of a gorgeous woman who knows that this man’s eyes and heart and tongue cannot help but jump up and follow her. LaVonn’s Camae is like a firecracker on the stage, setting off sparks as she goes.
Because Camae is an unknown character in a surreal drama, the role is, in some ways, easier to invent. We don’t bind the actor to specific expectations. King, on the other hand, is a real person whose visage, intonations and ideals we know. Alfred has to deliver the King we expect, plus a little something extra to make us come to the theater.
The actor rises to the challenge. Not only does he have King’s cadence that verges on song, but also his mien. There is gravity, purpose and sobriety to his King. What is new is his humor and wit. Through gestures and timing, and through a performance that is as poetic and natural as we can wish for, we see King as a vulnerable man who falls back on the tenets of his bedrock faith.
Alfred’s King is a man who, in the end, is governed and conducted by holy spirits. “Mountaintop,” whose single hotel room set is designed by Vicki Smith and whose crackling thunder soundscape was created by Martin Gwinup, delivers us into a world where a man wrestles with conflicts of faith and flesh. In that sense, the play is as much a drama of imagined historical proportions as it is a parable of the civil rights era. And King, the ardent dreamer, comes off as both more human and more iconic.
From its premiere in 2009, “Mountaintop” has caused concern among admirers of King. Those worriers include Twin Cities civil rights leader Josie Johnson, who marched with King and was relieved at the end of Friday’s opening.
“I was really worried that they would defame him,” she said. “But in the end, it turned out all right.”