by Patrick B. McGuigan
The new production from the Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre remains controversial in some circles. It shows us a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is a man with faults, doubts and “issues.” Even so, the tale lifts up and honors the memory of MLK’s role in the American civil rights movement.
Katori’s Hall’s “The Mountaintop” is true-to-life, but a work of fiction. Wrapped in the texture of living and breathing, and with the power of reality, the script is both down-to-earth and spiritually elevating. Fresh from London and Broadway acclaim, this imaginative work opens early next month, a co-production of CityRep, Pollard Theatre, and the Poteet Little Theatre (presently undergoing renovations at St. Luke’s Church).
Jerome Stevenson portrays the slain leader on the night before his death in Atlanta, the evening when he delivered the now-legendary speech that seems to anticipate his assassination. In that address, King evoke Biblical images of Moses gazing over the Jordan River, into the Promised Land – a place he could not go, but which his work helped achieve.
During a group interview of the two-person cast along with a veteran director, Stevenson told The City Sentinel current events “inform what any performer brings to a role like this.” The script, the veteran performer said, captures “a portion of a great movement, one piece – yet an essential piece – of an ongoing story.” He hopes “this engages people in the process of making America better.”
In the segregated South of the early Twentieth Century, lynchings of young black men were common. As is known from the news, violent encounters between young black men and our nation’s police officers are common in the news of today.
Junene K., who portrays a maid Dr. King meets on his last night before entering Eternity, said before taking on the part she “didn’t know Dr. King’s more human side. I’ve envisioned walking up to this iconic figure, a regular maid meeting a legend and finding that he, too, is a regular person.” But, she reflected, a regular person with a great soul.
The show’s run at the Civic Center Freede Little Theatre coincides with Black History Month. It has been a dream of CityRep co-founder Donald Jordan to do the show. He reflected, “It’s easy to keep someone like King at an easy distance. This revitalizes that. He wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man trying to do well, and at considerable cost. I believe his humanity demonstrates his relevance.”
Jordan continued, “This play crackles with electricity. It is vibrant. From the simplest of things, it moves to language that is soaring and elevating, and poignant.”
Junene K. (that is her name) says the play draws forth a “what-if” moment. “I have wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall with such a man. The viewer will see the mind, the fears and hopes, and the love of this man – and what he means to a community.”
The linkage of “the man to the idol” in Hall’s story seemed, to K., “a fascinating idea.”
Director Rene Moreno says the play becomes “powerful and personal” in relating, among other things, the interior life of a man who wants to see his four-year-old child become five, his eleven-year-old become 12. While Dr. King merits the statues, in Atlanta and elsewhere, that portray him heroically, “he’s a man like us.”
Stevenson remarked he wanted to “do something different,” than past portrayals of Dr. King, including David Oyelowo’s in the motion picture, “Selma.” That is a great film, he believes, but reflects, “We know what he sounded like. I want to convey a trust, that we can recognize that person as someone we might know.”
“The Mountaintop” production will run at the Freede Little Theatre in the Civic Center from Friday, February 6 through Sunday, February 15. The production then moves to Guthrie for a two-week run at the Pollard. Ticket information is available online at CityRep.com, or by telephoning 405-297-2264.
NOTE: The City Sentinel is a proud season sponsor of CityRep.