“I tell you, we do not know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” actor James T. Alfred said last week. “We know a man who had a dream, but that’s the Disney version of him. He was a very complicated man who was afraid and terrified sometimes, but impelled by his faith to act. He was funny, with a playful sense of humor. And, yes, he had stinky feet.”
Alfred should know. Over the past year or so, he has immersed himself in the writings and recordings of the civil rights hero in order to play King in “The Mountaintop,” the acclaimed drama by Katori Hall. Alfred has depicted King in successful runs in Arizona and North Carolina, a performance he revives Friday when Penumbra Theatre’s production of “The Mountaintop” opens at the Guthrie Theater.
The supernatural drama imagines the last night of King’s life at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis before he is felled by an assassin’s bullet. In the play, King is visited by a hotel attendant with whom he flirts. Actor Erika LaVonn plays that role.
“Mountaintop” takes its title from the last speech given by King, who had gone to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. He gave the address on April 3, 1968, concluding with this passage:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Hall’s play became a sensation when it premiered at a small theater London in 2009. It soon transferred to a run on the West End. Two years later, it opened on Broadway, with high-wattage stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
Alfred, who had known the playwright from when both were master’s degree students at the American Repertory Theater’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard, found that version of the play “underwhelming.”
“I didn’t think it had much heart,” he said. That’s one criticism that was leveled at the play. Another was that it too glibly knocked King off his pedestal.
Director Lou Bellamy initially wondered about that as well.
“I didn’t want to be part of anything that tore this man down — there are enough people ready to do that already,” he said.
But such reservations miss the essence of “The Mountaintop,” Bellamy said.
When he dove into the play, he found that it had another message.
We are right to celebrate the achievements of heroes and heroines, Bellamy argued. But in venerating figures like King or Nelson Mandela, we should not simplify their lives or ideas. That dishonors their complex lives and also takes them out of the realm of the ordinary.
Icons and us
“When we go about making these figures into icons — into secular saints — it absolves us of our own responsibilities,” Bellamy said. “These great leaders are just like the rest of us who reacted to stressful, hard things and rose to the occasion. That means that we, too, each of us, has the capacity and potential to be great like them. We have our own battles today.”
Besides, he added, if you set up these men and women up as icons, “we’re always going to be disappointed. They can’t be perfect. No one is.”
The play, he has discovered, really is about contemporary audience members of all races and genders as much as it is about King.
“People have come out of there shouting with happiness,” Bellamy said. “They see a man they can understand. They get to reflect on themselves.”
Alfred, too, has gained a new appreciation of King, especially of the difficulties he had harnessing disparate forces into a determined army of compassion.
“King had a profound belief in the central tenet of Christianity, which is love,” said Alfred. “He knew that black people were placed in the world by God for a great purpose, not to be used as props. He believed deeply that black people deserved to have lives of dignity and respect, especially in a country that professed freedom for everybody. Freedom for black people would be freedom for everyone, especially white people who are shackled in their souls by hypocrisy and guilt.”
As Alfred spoke, he started to get into character, echoing King’s famous sonority.
“He was such a masterful wordsmith,” said Alfred. “When you’re reading his stuff on the page, it has the rhythm and cadence that if you just follow it, it starts to take over and you feel yourself being lifted.”