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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Mountaintop

How can we be about to put a man on the moon yet not feed starving children in Mississippi?— Martin Luther King Jr
The Mountaintop
Lorraine Burroughs as Camae and David Harewood a Martin Luther King Jr
(Photo: Sheila Burnett)
It seems remarkable that only forty years on from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis in 1968, the event which provides the setting for Katori Hall's play The Mountaintop, that the United States of America has a black president. The Civil Rights movement in which Luther King played a pivotal role is the background, but Ms Hall's play is about the man himself, his fears and insecurities as well as his undoubted achievements. Hall grew up in Memphis and who was the first African American valedictorian in 1999 of a Memphis High School which was desegregated in 1973. The Mountaintop had its world premiere a few weeks ago at a small pub theatre in Battersea, Theatre503, and has transferred to the West End to the Trafalgar Studios.

David Harewood takes the lead role and is magnificent with a wonderfully sonorous voice, the preacher's dramatic timing and built in reverberation. See The Mountaintop for no better reason than to hear the musicality of his declamatory speech making. Set in a scruffy motel room, where King is staying during the campaign on behalf of the sanitation workers, he is joined by a woman, a hotel worker, Camae (Lorraine Burroughs) who questions him about his life. He talks about his family and his career, about his fear of assassination and his relationship with the FBI. He searches the room for bugs knowing that in the past the FBI have taped his conversations and used his private life to try to discredit him.

King practices extracts from his speech, "Why America's going straight to Hell" and the oratory is outstanding theatre. He takes cigarettes from Camae and tries to relax but has a sense of his own imminent death. He talks about his fears on the pulpit like "a tall tree he is due to be felled." Camae is candid and frank with the great man. Very pretty and obviously intelligent, she draws him into conversation and it's fun and flirtatious! She even gives a mock speech telling him what he ought to say, as if she is the preacher, standing on top one of the pair of divan beds and wearing his shoes. We can pick up on the charisma of Martin Luther King and delight in his charming companion. He talks movingly about the current campaign, the justice of the cause for these most downtrodden of workers.

The play takes a curious turn into quasi-religious fantasy when Camae reveals that she is not a maid but an angel sent by the female God, yes God is a black woman, to escort Martin Luther King to heaven. King tells us that he did not seek out fame, he wanted to be a minister in his small church not a world figure. Faced with his own death, King wants to speak again to his wife Coretta and child, but the phone lies unanswered by his family. However he does connect with God.

The performances from the cast of two are stellar. Lorraine Burroughs is quirky and amusing, forgetting herself and swearing, she is a trainee angel but genuine and animated. Harewood's King has great presence. He doesn't look like King but his voice is perfect and it is for the oratory that we remember the Nobel Peace Prize Winner. In also showing his weaknesses, Katori Hall has given us a rounded, human and likeable picture of Martin Luther King, to whom we all owe a debt for starting to change the inequality of American society.

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The Mountaintop
Written by Katori Hall
Directed by James Dacre

Starring: David Harewood, Lorraine Burroughs
Design: Libby Watson
Lighting: Emma Chapman
Music and Sound: Richard Hammarton
Video Design: Dick Straker for Mesmer
Running time: One and a half hours with no interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 5th September 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st July 2009 performance at the Trafalgar Studio One, Whitehall, London SW1(Tube: Charing Cross)

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