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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

The Mountaintop
Arizona Theatre Company

Also see Gil's reviews of Fifty Shades of Felt and The Music Man


Erika LaVonn and James T. Alfred
The Arizona Theatre Company is presenting the Arizona premiere of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop. The fictionalized play that represents Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last night before he is assassinated is a two-character piece that isn't at all what it first appears to be. This Arizona Theatre Company / Penumbra Theatre Company co-production is well cast and directed, and the play takes the audience on quite a journey.

Hall's play, which won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2009, takes place the evening of April 3, 1968, at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. Dr. King had just delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech and the next day he would be assassinated outside the hotel room. But this evening finds him tired, restless and alone. Fortunately, he finds someone to talk to when he orders coffee from the front desk which a hotel maid brings to his room.

James T. Alfred is King and the hair and makeup design make him look very much like the famous and extraordinary leader. That, along with the requisite actions, speech and demeanor that we know from video footage of him, combine for a portrayal that is extremely effective. The play represents him as an "everyman" what with his bad habit of smoking, lapses into womanizing, and even his smelly feet. However, the bits and pieces of speeches that King delivers instantly make him rise above any thought of him being just like the rest of us.

The recent Broadway production featured Samuel L. Jackson, in his Broadway debut, as King. It was an understated performance but I actually think that Alfred is even better than Jackson—without the movie star pedigree of the actor in the part you can more identify with the “everyman” aspect. And, like Jackson, Alfred's performance is appropriately simple and understated, never showy or out of character, with perfect touches of a range of emotions, from fear to happiness, which adds a nice dimension to the man that we all believe King truly was.

Erika LaVonn is Camae the maid and, while this is a somewhat tough part to tackle, she succeeds in creating a character that has many layers as well as a very specific and pre-defined directive, one that becomes very clear about two-thirds of the way into the play. While she might seem a little crazy, she never comes across as overacting or mis-directed, but instead she perfectly captures the various ways someone would react when coming in contact with a man as famous as King. When you add the fact that this is Camae's first day on the job and that she isn't at all what she first appears to be, it better explains many of her actions. She also has two major monologues, one about 30 minutes into the show and the other toward the very end, that are rousing showstoppers. The first is a high-energy sermon she creates on the spot that is peppered hilariously with obscenities, and the second is a sermon of a whole other nature, delivered in an almost rap-like fashion that, when combined with the set and projection design, almost becomes an out of body experience. Like Alfred, LaVonn exceeds what Angela Bassett was able to bring to the Broadway production, but that has less to do with LaVonn not being a movie star and more to do with her and director Lou Bellamy's decision to not have Camae be almost looney until her true nature is known.

Bellamy does a fine job in directing his two actors. We get a good sense of what King was going through, even as he paces around the inside and outside of the hotel room before the play begins to show his boredom, frustration and fear. Bellamy also allows the production to not feel rushed by building tension and drama effectively.

Creative elements are very good, with a simple yet effective set design by Vicki Smith and lighting design by Don Darnutzer that allow the appropriate moods to play out appropriately, even though the majority of the play is set in one room. Kish Finnegan's costumes are period perfect, especially the color and style of Camae's maid's outfit. the video design by Martin Gwinup is less elaborate than what the Broadway production used, but still effective.

The only downside is that the majority of LaVonn's second "sermon" appears to be pre-recorded, which detracts somewhat from the powerfulness of that part of the play. Fortunately, it is followed by an emotional speech from Alfred that resonates in many ways and really packs an emotional punch.

I don't want to give away too much of the play except to say that there is a lovely theatricality to it, something that can really only happen as a live experience. The ending will make you really think about your role in the world and how we are all ultimately connected, even by a simple action. It also made me think about what would I do if I somehow found out that I was going to die the next day. Seeing the show fifty years after the assassination of JFK also adds a certain resonance, knowing how the silencing of one leader can instill hundreds of others to step up to pass the baton of change.

This production of The Mountaintop has two very capable leads, good direction, simple yet effective creative elements, and is a journey you won't soon forget.

The Mountaintop, a co-production of Arizona Theatre Company and Penumbra Theatre Company, through December 1st at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256–6995. This production then moves to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, North Caroline from February 4th to March 2, 2014, and then the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minneapolis, from March 28th through April 20, 2014.

Director: Lou Bellamy
Scenic Designer: Vicki Smith
Costume Designer: Kish Finnegan
Lighting Designer: Don Darnutzer
Sound & Video Designer: Martin Gwinup
Casting Director: Harriett Bass
Production Stage Manager: Glenn Bruner
Assistant Stage Manager: Timothy Toothman
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr: James T. Alfred Camae: Erika LaVonn


Photo: Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Company

--Gil Benbrook


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