The last night on earth of African-American civil rights activist, the Reverend Martin Luther King is the subject of The Mountaintop, a surprisingly magical story by Katori Hall.
In April 1968, King was in Memphis Tennessee to help black public sanitation workers petition for higher wages and better treatment. He and his entourage were staying at the Lorraine Motel, and it was on the evening of April 4, following a bomb threat on the plane that flew him to Memphis days before, that King was assassinated on the second floor balcony of the building.
Hall imagines King (Bert LaBonte) as a weary and worried man, returning to his room following the day of his “I have been to the mountaintop" speech. Looking for fresh socks and cigarettes, having run out of the latter, he contacts room service for coffee and is bowled over by the force of nature that is sassy maid Camae (Zahra Newman). The housekeeper is both obliging and flirtatious as she shares her Pall Mall cigarettes with King and reveals that it’s her first day on the job.
From here Hall’s script starts to move in an unexpected and charmingly mystical direction, allowing both King and the audience to understand the legacy of the man who blazed the trail of equal rights for African-Americans.
While LaBonte and Newman seem to be the ‘go-to’ actors for all roles of colour at the MTC, suggesting a possible lack of opportunity for other performers, both are in excellent form here. In fact, this is quite possibly Newman’s best work to date. Her Camae is winsome, feisty and full of moxie, engaging King in debate of equal measure to the skilled orator. LaBonte brings excellent contrast to King, allowing the audience to feel they’ve spent time in the presence of both the man and the legend.
Director Alkinos Tsilimidos has developed these performances from the duo and skilfully navigates the changing moods of Hall’s script. Shaun Gurton has managed to squeeze perhaps the largest and most sophisticated set ever seen in the petite Fairfax studio, and it’s impeccably designed. Video projections and Matt Scott’s skilled lighting design add further style to this well-rounded production.
The MTC should be congratulated on the overall artistic success of this moving production that has seen its season extended even before opening night. Audiences will gain great insight into the important mark King has made not only on America, but also on the world. Perhaps the company should now seek to put as much effort into telling Australian stories of such significance.