“You won’t feel the hurt – the world will.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biographer Taylor Branch said the following when speaking of King’s autopsy after his assassination in 1968 – “The Movement took a huge toll on him. When they did the autopsy, they said he had the heart of a 60 year old, he’s 39.”
That statement is both fascinating and fitting.
Today, King is celebrated as he should be – one of two civil rights leaders with a holiday in his honor in the United States. Events that bear his name are everywhere in the middle of January specifically, and throughout the country daily in the form of schools, roads and a library in our own region. While the legacy of his work is constantly in motion today, there is also a piece that is so much more painful than simply celebrating the glory of a leader.
Katori Hall’s masterpiece “The Mountaintop,” in an exquisite production by Mountain View’s Pear Theatre, is unflinching as it examines the end of those 39 years. It’s brilliance is in the way it views King, so different than the news clips that are engrained in our minds – the national mall waving to millions, the “I Have a Dream” speech, commanding churches and inspiring the masses.
This is a King that is alone seeking companionship other than his confidant and friend Ralph Abernathy. This is a King that is not an idea or a concept, but a King that is a man first and foremost. A man that is tired, but still has work to do. A man that has some serious foot funk, holes in his socks and bad breath. Or as he says, “I have some marching feet, and we haven’t even marched yet.”
We look at King and don’t think of these things often – that arguably the greatest civil rights leader of our time would spend his last days in a rundown motel, just trying to get a decent cigarette and any ol’ cup of coffee.
The two-person play is a gripping piece written by Hall and directed with searing focus by Ray Renati. Portraying King is Michael Wayne Rice, who I first reviewed in a production of the Tracy Letts’ piece “Killer Joe.” What Rice does very well is portray characters that we are conflicted with. While King is a changer of the world, he is not portrayed here with unfettered romanticism. In plenty of moments, quite the opposite. There are certainly allusions to some of King’s rumored affairs, and an uncomfortable scene where King speaks with his wife Coretta, all the while trying to keep the hotel maid Camae (a wonderful Nathalie Autumn Bennett) quiet as she chortles while enjoying a Pall Mall. These moments are not meant to undercut King and his mission. His amazing leadership skills and own vices are not mutually exclusive. Rather, sharing his imperfections makes him so much more relatable, a man who shared the same issues with so many he led.
Rice’s portrayal is rooted in method acting. He is a bit paunchier here, balding, portraying a man who certainly appears older than the 39 years of his birth. Physically, Rice’s commitment is a marvel.
Bennett certainly provides him plenty to work with, with so many moments between them just magical. The biggest discovery King makes is also the hardest one to digest. We know how the story ends; yet to be in the middle of it makes us want to scream for that moment in time to stop. While the first half of the intermission-free 90 minute play moves with plenty of gentle humor and key exposition, it is the second half that explodes off the stage, with lots of emotional daggers that rip through the flesh.
While Rice makes certain discoveries as King , which leads to the realization of his own mortality, it is the beauty of Bennett’s Camae that helps get King to the promise land. Bennett has the ultimate responsibility of playing two characters, one a flitty and flighty temptress, and another a beautiful friend, a woman who is given the ultimate honor to lead the leader.
While so much of the story is enmeshed with the two actors, the ending of the play is certainly something I was never expecting, with all credit going to scenic designer Kuo-Hao Lo and videographer John Beamer. There is so much sad poetry in the times we live in, seeing names like Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown jumping off the stage and directly hitting us where we live, while King joins us as a fellow witness. Seeing these names, along with so many others, is painful, especially because these names make Trayvon Martin seem like such a long time ago.
The essential question the play asks is, who will lead us next? And while that answer may not always be clear, if we lose that idealism that Dr. King exuded, even through so much of his own discouragement, then we will continue to be lost in the fog, devoid of any hope.
The play’s title is in reference to King’s final speech, which took place in Memphis shortly before his assassination. And despite all of the magical things he mentioned in that speech, namely the belief that America can be better, one thing certainly stands out, something that kept him on earth longer than he should have stayed;
Thank goodness he never sneezed.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Pear Theatre presents “The Mountaintop”
Written by Katori Hall
Directed by Ray Renati
Featuring Michael Wayne Rice and Nathalie Autumn Bennett
The Word: A fascinating adaptation of a significant part of King’s life that beautifully connects the past and the present, a tight, magical piece of theatre for the company in their new space.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Jan. 31st
The Pear Avenue Theatre
1110 La Avenida Street
Mountain View, CA
For tickets, call (650) 254-1148 or visit www.thepear.org