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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Mountaintop

Also see Susan's review of Hello, Dolly!


Bowman Wright and Joaquina Kalukango
In The Mountaintop, receiving its Washington area premiere at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, playwright Katori Hall presents the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a flawed human being rather than the popular conception of a martyred saint. She succeeds in this aim as far as it goes, but the play is not a total success.

As incarnated by actor Bowman Wright and staged by director Robert O'Hara, King has the inner strength that goes with knowing he's on the right path, but also the doubts that lurk underneath and the worry at possibly leaving his job unfinished. It's the rainy night of April 3, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis: King is stirred up after delivering his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech to a crowd of thousands and is trying to focus on writing the speech he plans to give the following night. (He never got the chance to give that speech, of course, because assassin James Earl Ray shot him April 4 as he stood on the motel balcony.)

Wright ably inhabits the soul and body of a man who, despite his larger-than-life qualities as a leader, worries about smelly feet and enjoys cigarettes, whiskey, and being around attractive women. In this case, the woman is Camae (Joaquina Kalukango), a maid who brings him a cup of coffee and stays for conversation. She's a strong presence, intelligent, often profane, and a match for the tired but determined civil rights leader.

The first half of the play, performed without intermission, is engaging and even playful. Then Hall pulls a switch (which will not be revealed here) that turns the nature of the drama from realistic to metaphysical, and the shift is jarring. The playwright's ambitions may outstrip her abilities here: the language is undeniably dramatic as it flows and churns, but the ultimate point remains murky.

Clint Ramos' scenic design incorporates both the exterior and the interior of King's motel room on a turntable: the audience's first view of the man is as he paces back and forth on the balcony, pen in hand, making notes for the speech no one will ever hear. Japhy Weideman's lighting design includes some surprises, and Lindsay Jones has created an evocative sound design.

Arena Stage
The Mountaintop
March 29th - May 12th
By Katori Hall
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Bowman Wright
Camae: Joaquina Kalukango
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Produced in association with Alley Theatre
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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