Saturday 21 February 2015

The Mountaintop an engaging phantasy trek

Personal remembrances :  Martin Luther King, Jr. (birthname : Michael) was assassinated during my final year of college in Michigan. Where I had fled back to from Hollywood after witnessing the smoke from the Los Angeles Watts ghetto riots three summers before. Like most of my classmates, I had seen the news clips of Dr. King's "I have been to the mountaintop!" speech -- his Promised Land promise -- from the day before at the Mason Temple on Walter Cronkite's CBS news. And despite being a self-described skeptic about public idols, I had been moved by the passion of his oratory. The speech was electrifying theatre, no question, made moreso by references to the constant threats that circulated menacingly wherever he went.

And while a giant of a man at only 5' 6" tall, King's down-to-earth personal habits -- particularly his wandering eye from wife Coretta Scott King -- had already been well-publicized. To this day I have no doubt it was FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover who saw to it Dr. King's peccadilloes were leaked from their confidential surveillance files to the press. Hoover was nothing if not spiteful, possibly to masque his in-the-closet self while condemning others who had equal power to him in the public eye. But that's for another time, another play.

And so it was that by the time Dr. King was shot dead I did not apotheosize him the way millions of idolizing adults did. I was a college kid. As a free speech exemplar and existential change-agent, King was a political hero of mine, just as Bobby Kennedy was. But I believed I saw them both -- then, as now -- for what history has proven they were : men of tremendous vision and courage and ambition and a full complement of ordinary human foibles, too. For his part King, like the Kennedy boys, was a womanizer. Unlike them, King smoked (unfiltered Pall Malls), and that weakness endeared him to me. Unlike them, he ate too much and carried a sizeable midriff bulge. From a family with a history of weight issues, I liked that about him too. He was, in a word, real in ways those jocks, the cavorting Ivy League Kennedy boys, were not.

Plot overview background :  Rising star playwright Katori Hall wrote The Mountaintop in 2009. Ms. Hall was born in 1981, so King in fact had been dead forty years when she decided to write about him, inspired by her mother's stories of the man. Mom Hall lived only a block away from the motel in Memphis where he spent his last hours. She was tempted to go to his Mason Temple rally, but Katori's grandma waved her off, fearing violence, as King was there to confront the city's mayor over a strike by some 1,350 civic employees, many if not most of them black. King dignified and elevated and championed these workers. He insisted, repeatedly, that they be referred to as "sanitation workers", not "garbage men", analogous to how the word "prostitute" has given way to "sex trade worker".

By the time Hall took to writing the play, 9/11 had long since come and gone. George W. Bush had come and gone. Wall Street had imploded a year before. Obama was now President and staring the Tea Party right in the eye trying not to blink first. The world economy was in the tank. A perfect time to look back wistfully and creatively at the King years.

But Ms. Hall, a Master of Fine Arts graduate from Harvard, knew she needed a contemporary hook to mount a play about this dead American hero. To her Gen Y contemporaries and the Millennials who followed, MLK was known mostly from glossy photos and YouTube cuts of his famous speeches. And so her hook became to imagine a real-time blood-&-guts Martin Luther King, 39, on his last night in Room 306 of the scruffy Lorraine Motel off Mulberry Street where lunch diners and saloons and dry cleaning shops were its closest neighbours.

King smokes, check. He drinks, check. He cusses real good, check. He has an eye for sexy women, check. Let's imagine all these habits together with a maid who comes to King's room with some Pall Malls and some coffee and see where all that takes us. 

How it all plays out : If viewers know the 1996 Nora Ephron masterpiece film Michael, what awaits them in The Mountaintop will not particularly surprise by way of technique. In Michael, John Travolta is the archangel of the same name who is sent to earth one last and final trip by His Master. He has some jobs to attend to, some folks whose wounds need t.l.c. before he is "sent home" for eternity.

In The Mountaintop there's an angel come to earth, too. Camae (Crystal Balint) is sent by Her Mistress the night of April 3rd to prepare Martin/Michael (Dion Johnstone) for his "cross-over" that's about to occur once the fateful gunshot rings out on the Lorraine Motel balcony the next morning. Like the movie angel, Camae is a rough diamond for sure, lots of cuss-words, packs of smokes at the ready, a hip-flask. The flip here is she's just a day-old-angel with a shapely body and a checkered past who came to an untimely end and now must rescue King as Task 1 for Her to forgive Camae of her earthly sins. 

But this angel scheme does not become obvious to playgoers until half-way through the 95-minute one-act performance. Until then, what is presented narratively and naturalistically are the two characters of Camae and King riffing on one another coquettishly, sharing smokes, spiking King's coffee, challenging one another about the drift of upcoming speeches and the future of the civil rights movement generally. But unless there were "something up" in the play, the continued presence in Room 306 of a motel maid on her first shift at The Lorraine would make zero dramatic sense whatever. 

Their byplay unfolds. If King frets about his next speech -- "America is going to hell!" he pencils in -- Camae prods him toward the rhetoric of the late radical Malcolm X instead : "Fuck the white man, we should kill the white man!" This she urges in faux-MLK oratorical flight while jumping up and down on his bed in his shoes and suit jacket. King is intrigued : "You have a weakness for violent words." Camae replies : "You speak of love, you die by hate." Ultimately he talks himself down : "They hate so easily and we love too much. One thing we have in common -- we're scared -- and fear is what makes us human."

But Camae persists in her goading, calling King a "bourgie Negro". She makes flip comments about God. King cautions her : "Gods don't like to be laughed at!" Camae shoots back : "God's one funny motherfucker. She even likes dirty jokes." About then King collapses on the floor for the umpteenth time when thunder crashes outside. Camae grabs him : "Michael, Michael, just breathe, I'm going to get you through this night." Hearing his birth name Michael at first sends him into uncontrolled rage suspecting her of being an FBI "spook". But shortly he learns of her Heaven-sent purpose. "I read your Blessings file and it's bigger than your FBI file, and that's bigger than the Bible!" she tells him.

Hall's trick here lies somewhere between Rod Serling's popular Twilight Zone from the 60's and Steven Spielberg's brief mid-80's phantasy show The Mission that in one episode featured a trapped WW II gunner who's an aspiring cartoonist. He imagines wheels being drawn Disney-like on his doomed aircraft and proceeds to land it safely. [?!]

Here there's a goofy phone call between King and Her where he pleads that She give him more time. That's followed by an even goofier pillow fight between angel Camae and King. I was put to mind of Travolta in Michael having his game of chicken with the bull out in the pasture. Because part of the trick is how the characters switch between "real" time and "God-time" back-&-forth. Many critics assail all this as juvenile and over-reaching nonsense by playwright Hall. I, for one, "believed" it all in Efron's Michael and I "believe" it in Hall's The Mountaintop, too. 

Camae finally relents in a way to King's desperate wish to be "given more time" to finish what he started. He says he is prepared to end his time on earth if only he can have a glimpse of the world to come once he's dead. King speaks repeatedly of the civil rights "baton" that needs to be passed off, not unlike John McCrae's plea to those who survive World War I : "Take up our quarrel with the foe.  / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch -- be yours to hold it high." 

Here Hall injects her final, clever conceit : the beds in the Lorraine Motel spread part and a series of black-&-white photos in stage-wide collage are projected onto the scrim showing scenes from life in USA over the ensuing 40 years. From 16-year-old Larry Payne being killed by police in the summer of 1967 whose death King recalls painfully and repeatedly, not much progress between then and the summer of 2014 when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Such seems to be the leitmotif of the photos scattergunned onto the screen. All the while Camae rhymes off the names of the dead and their surrounding event markers just like Billy Joel did in his classic song-elegy "We Didn't Start The Fire".

Production values : Director Janet Wright made wise cast selections in both Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Each has considerable stage presence and perfect pipes to project MLK's real and imagined words. Johnstone particularly was convincing in his depiction of a sick and weary and wounded and beaten but unbowed King ready to face down Memphis mayor Henry Loeb. That said, King's throwing himself prostrate and writhing in seizure each and every time the outside thunder rolled was, to this viewer anyway, a bit of a stretch even for a stage play.

Wright's blocking for Johnstone seemed a bit more complete and convincing than Balint's, for some reason. Her stage action struck this eye as somewhat wooden by comparison much of the night. But her moments of juice and sass and her tender touches were terrific. 

Resident ACT veteran set designer Ted Roberts aced the Lorraine Motel bedroom accoutrements. One could almost smell the Lysol and bedbug spray and the mold on the curtains and twin double beds. Sound designer Brian Linds' thunderous weather clamour joined Marsha Sibthorpe's customary lighting prowess for great effect. Candelario Andrade's projection design of all the scattergun photos was excellently executed.

Who gonna like : The Mountaintop resonated particularly with me given the personal remembrances noted up top. This is not a play of action. This is not a play of character development. These are characters and caricatures both that Katori Hall has created. 

Hall's foreshadowing comments about King's impending death are altogether too frequent and heavy-handed -- the audience knows the history here, after all, no need to keep swacking us with "hints". But that's just quibble. The pace of her script is gentle and humane and charming and convincing. The result of it all is a play that provokes serious & reflective thought rather than buzzy excitement. We giggle and titter along the way, but we come away musing on what could have been-might have been-should have been -- and what's perhaps to come.

In the end the crowd exits sharing some wee sadness that as a people and as nations we lucky first-world folk haven't progressed as far as we might have hoped or wished since Dr. King's brave and remarkable and memorable trek among us so many years ago. And that isn't a bad take-away by any measure.

Particulars :  Written by Katori Hall. In performance at ACT's Granville Island stage February 12-March 12. Performance time 95 minutes without intermission. Tickets via or at 604.687.1644.

Production crew : Director Janet Wright.  Assistant Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound Designer Brian Linds.  Projection Designer Candelario Andrade.  Stage Manager Marion Anderson.  Assistant Stage Manager Lucy Pratt-Johnson.

Performers :  Crystal Balint.  Dion Johnstone.

Addendum : A hand-out in the show bulletin announces the 1st Annual Rights and Freedoms March this April 17th.  

April 17th isn't just the 33rd anniversary of our Canadian Charter, but also the day when Dr. Martin Luther King's torch of equality and understanding arrives in Canada for the first annual 'Rights and Freedoms' march. A peaceful celebration, it begins at 9:30 am from Canada Line's Olympic Village. Join us as we walk eastward along the seawall towards the Science Centre, around False Creek past Canuck Place, arriving at David Lam Park.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was intended to be a source for national values and unity, where people share fundamental principals [sic] based on freedom and equality.

Don't be a spectator -- be a participant. Take Dr. King's torch of understanding and pass it to your fellow man [sic].

If you didn't march in the 60's, it's not too late. Mark your calendar. Be part of history. Be part of this movement.


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