BWW Reviews: The Alley's THE MOUNTAINTOP is Powerful and Provocative
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by David Clarke
With DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day just around the corner, The Alley is producing Katori Hall's play THE MOUNTAINTOP. The play premiered in London in 2009 to critical acclaim. It opened in New York on Broadway in October 2011 with Samuel L. Jackson as DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett opposite him. Reviews in New York were mixed, but the show sold well and even recouped its initial investment during its final weekend in January 2012.
Katori Hall's play is a vivid and alluring re-imagination of Dr. King's final night on earth. The play takes place in and around room 306 of Memphis' Lorraine Motel. The audience sees Dr. King as a man, not a saint or deity. She explains that "it is not the 'I have a dream' King. It's a King that is radical." From the opening of the play, we see an exhausted and overwrought man working hard to make a difference in the world. When the beautiful and seductive maid enters his room to deliver a cup of coffee, King is tempted and even seduced by the woman. Within minutes of entering his room, it becomes abundantly clear that Carrie Mae, or Camae, as she likes to be called, is more than she appears. She speaks with Dr. King and helps him to confront his fate.
Robert O'Hara directs the tense and taught drama with magnificent skill. Early in the second half of the show, Camae makes a revelation to Dr. King and the audience alike that is a surprising tonal shift in the piece. The way it is scripted, this revelation is jarring and even confounding; however, Robert O'Hara's solid direction keeps the audience engaged and entranced to the point that we can easily accept the change and continue to follow the powerful and provocative show. Moreover, Robert O'Hara's brilliant cast of two is dynamic and altogether impressive in their visceral, gritty, and even raw characterizations. You've never seen a DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. quite like this, but you'll love the experience of seeing the fallible and entirely human man behind the myth, behind the martyr, behind the saint. Lastly, his cast has an electrifying chemistry that takes the play and audience to soaring heights.
The only faults I found in Robert O'Hara's direction were when the cast sat on the downstage left bench with their back turned toward where I was sitting; I had a hard time hearing their words when they were seated there. Also, when discussing Malcom X, the characters run outside of the room onto the balcony, which causes the set to spin so the audience can see their action on the balcony. Seated in the right side of the auditorium, by the time the set had spun to where I could see the balcony they were back at the doorway talking. Thus, the spinning of the set felt more like a gimmick to remind the audience that the set could spin since we had not seen it move since the beginning of the show. With that said, arrive early so you can see a brooding and harried Dr. King to pace back and forth on the balcony and in and out of room 306 in view of the audience. This fantastic preshow technique, complete with the sound effect of falling rain and cars driving by, was cleverly utilized to help set the tone of the show.
Starring as DR. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bowman Wright delivers an exhilarating performance. With the help of Katori Hall's script, he brilliantly humanizes while entirely respecting Dr. King. Bowman Wright's performance is as pristine as it is powerful and motivating. He brings unconditional and fascinating life into a celebrated figure from history and makes him realistic, believable, and inspiringly flawed. As the audience, we see a character that is so much like ourselves on so many different levels that we cannot help but wonder if one of us will be as great a person as Dr. King. Bowman Wright fully understands his character's emotional arc and vacillates between being adroitly reserved and devastatingly explosive in all the right moments.
Co-starring as Camae, Joaquina Kalukango brings a palpable life and energy to her fiery and fierce character. She earns peals of laughter from the audience as easily as she earns their affection. Joaquina Kalukango's Camae is filled with vivacious personality, a sharp tongue, and extraordinary wit. Also, she deftly drops thematic one-liners, making sure the shows themes are vibrantly brought to the audience's attention. Her "Civil Rights will kill you before these Pall Mall's will" and her repeated "Speak by love, die by hate" still rings with emotionally charged resonance in my mind. She expertly conquers the tonal shift brought about by her character's revelation, keeping the audience invested in her performance and the show itself. As if she had not blown audiences away enough, her monologue before the epilogue is remarkable and dexterously delivered. Everything about Joaquina Kalukango's Camae is radiant and brilliant, showcasing a talent for striking and stunning performances that will be worth following. Hopefully, she'll return to The Alley, or even Houston, and share her gift more in the future.
Clint Ramos's Scenic and Costume Design is spot-on perfection. The costumes are period appropriate and look fantastic on stage. The set, especially when we get to see the interior of room 306 is nothing short of breathtaking and visually stunning. The detail put into the cross-section work is magnificent. The audience gets to see the inside of the walls. The copper pipe for the bathroom is exposed, the insulation in the ceiling, the cinderblocks that separate the first floor room from the second floor room. Every detail is meticulously in place, visually appealing, and entirely effective.
Japhy Weideman's Lighting Design is wonderfully atmospheric in all the right moments, especially the more tense and compelling parts late in the show. Most of the show occurs in realistic lighting; however, Japhy Weideman transitions the lights beautifully to allow Jeff Sugg's projections to be effective.
Jeff Sugg's projections of rain falling outside the building that run for almost the entirety of the show are simply astounding. Upon entering the auditorium, I could not instantly determine if the rain falling was a projection. That is how visually realistic Jeff Sugg's design on the rain is. Despite his wonderful work on the projections, a few came across as hokey to me. I was not impressed by the snow flurries or the red flower petals. These images did not come across as crisply or uniformly as the others. On the other hand, the surrealist shifting and warping of the walls of room 306 through projections was immaculate and simply stunning.
Lindsay Jones' sound design is fantastic. The only flaw I found was that the first time the actor's voices were manipulated I could not understand a word that was being said. The echo effect and reverberation prevented the words from being discernible. In every other part of the show where the voices were modified and modulated, this was not a problem.
While not a flawless play or production, The Alley's presentation of THE MOUNTAINTOP is an emotionally solid piece of theatre. The last 20 minutes or so of the play are spectacular in their ability to move the audience, reducing ambient noise in the auditorium to utter silence interrupted by stifled sobs. When the audience jumped to their feet and cheered during a long and excited standing ovation, there was no doubt that it was well deserved. If you're looking for something that is sobering and even a little bit eye-opening, THE MOUNTAINTOP is a hot ticket worth buying.
THE MOUNTAINTOP runs on The Alley's Hubbard Stage through February 3, 2013. For more information, please visit http://www.alleytheatre.org or call (713) 220 - 5700.
Photos by Jann Whaley, courtesy of The Alley Theatre.