Mill Mountain Theatre’s new play visits civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. the night before his assassination.
“The Mountaintop” opens Friday for a two-day run on the professional theater’s Waldron Stage on Church Avenue in downtown Roanoke. It inaugurates the Waldron Fringe Series, staged readings of dramas addressing provocative topics.
Set in a Memphis hotel room on April 3, 1968, “The Mountaintop” portrays the civil rights hero in an unsentimental way. He flirts with a hotel maid, he smokes, he curses, he uses the bathroom.
“The play honors him in a way that we don’t normally see, by making him a human being,” said G.D. Kimble, the production’s director. “He was just a guy. He wasn’t this person where the heavens cracked open and dropped him in our laps.”
Written by New York playwright Katori Hall, a Memphis native, “The Mountaintop” at first had difficulty finding a home in the United States. The first performance took place in London in 2009. Hall become the first non-white author to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play.
In 2011, the play premiered on Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the lead roles.
Kimble, 41, saw the play during its Broadway run. “It really struck me in its simplicity,” he said. “It said a lot in a really lovely way about our culture, about who we are. I knew then that I wanted to tackle it at some point.”
Kimble and two actors, Blake Morris, 25, and Maribel Martinez, 30, all from New York, will bring the play to life for Roanoke audiences.
On the surface, Morris has the more daunting task of the two leads. “You immediately think, how do you play the guy that everyone knew?” he said.
Here’s where the unusual approach to the subject matter helps. “She put together such a beautiful story,” Morris said. “You’re drawn to the queerness of the story, how different it is from what you expect.”
One of the great things about the play, Kimble said, is “you’re not saddling an actor with doing an impression.”
Growing up in Memphis, Hall often heard her mother voice regret that she did not get to hear King’s famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, which he gave in a Memphis church on April 3, 1968. It proved to be his last speech. The next evening, King was fatally shot as he stood on the balcony of his second-floor hotel room.
Hall began to write “The Mountaintop” as a way of imagining a fictional meeting between her mother and the civil rights leader. In the play, the name of the character Camae is taken from Carrie Mae Golden, the name of Hall’s mother. However, the role of Camae is not a direct analog to her real-life inspiration — her true nature is one of the play’s surprises.
“You’re seeing these characters being really personal and really human,” Martinez said.
In a way, the play serves as a reflection on King’s life and legacy by a black American artist born years after he died. The Mill Mountain performance can be seen that way, too. Morris is 14 years younger than King was at the time of his assassination. (In a striking bit of serendipity, Morris’ birthday is April 3.)
“The subject matter is dealing directly with his view on violence,” Morris said. The actor said that he doesn’t believe social change can be brought about by the turn-the-other-cheek approach King advocated, but he’s come to admire King’s dedication to his principles. “He lived that and he dealt with the consequences.”
Kimble said that he’s frustrated by modern-day misconceptions that King was a milquetoast peacenik. “This man was a very, very angry, active man, he just channeled that in a very specific way.”
“Just like we use our body as our instrument, he uses words as his instrument,” Martinez said.
The problems King worked so hard to address haven’t gone away.
“There’s so much that hasn’t changed,” Kimble said. “There’s many things that have gotten worse. Those conversations have to be a part of this play.”
The Harrison Museum of African American Culture in downtown Roanoke has opened a new exhibition, “A Place for All People: Introducing the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.” The show is a collection of posters commemorating the Sept. 26 grand opening of the Smithsonian’s newest museum. The posters contain information about artifacts in the museum, using them to discuss a broad swath of black American history.
“A Place for All People” will stay up at the Harrison, on the second floor of Center in the Square, through April 30. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $7; $4.75 for children ages 5-17; and free for children 4 and younger.
For more information, call 857-4395 or visit http://harrisonmuseum.com.
Best of Soul Sessions
Spoken-word poetry venue Soul Sessions will hold its third-anniversary show 7 p.m. Saturday at the Dumas Center for Artistic and Cultural Development, 108 Henry St. N.W., in Roanoke. The event was organized in partnership with new theater group Theatre 3. Comedy troupe Big Lick Conspiracy will also perform.
Soul Sessions meets every two weeks on Wednesday evenings in 16 West Marketplace on Church Street in downtown Roanoke. The next regular meeting is March 1 at 8 p.m. Attendance is free for both the regular and anniversary shows.
For more information, visit “Soul Session’s 3rd Anniversary Party” on Facebook.