It is April 3, 1968. Inside a homely hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, renowned civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. paces about anxiously as he struggles to write his next speech. He orders room service in order to escape his writers’ block, and a maid named Camae delivers the order up to his room. He attempts to flirt with her at first, but once he learns the true purpose of her visit, his life changes forever.
The Mountaintop is an engaging fictional imagining of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on Earth. Brimming with humour, wit, reverence, and heart, this play has a little bit of everything, while being comprised of only two characters and a single setting — that Memphis hotel room.
Dion Johnstone brought the late Martin Luther King Jr. to life on stage, not glorifying him as a civil rights leader but portraying him as a regular man with a passion for his work. King was portrayed as a loving father, but a worn-down man, one who persevered through abuse and hate as he continued marching for his cause of equality. King also had his own insecurities and fears, and Johnstone added complex dimensions to a man that has been put on a pedestal in history.
Crystal Balint shone as the sassy hotel maid Camae, who puts King in check. Flirty yet full of wisdom and wit, her character is instantly likeable, and her chemistry with Johnstone fuels the plot nicely. One of the highlights of the show was when she imitated Preacher King himself, putting on his jacket and shoes as she gave a passionate sermon about how America should, in her terms, “fuck the white man!” Even though she is a fictional character, Camae was never performed as anything other than being an authentic confidante to King.
The play was a rare gem in its incorporation of humour into its tribute to the late civil rights leader. The snappy dialogue between Johnstone and Balint certainly elicited more than a few laughs from the audience. Yet it tugged at the heartstrings too, as the value of King’s work is shown to be ever more important through the depiction of his suffering.
An hour and a half flew by in an emotional tour de force, channeling flirtation, anger, and sorrow between the two characters, and at the play’s stunning conclusion few eyes were dry. I would even go so far as to say that it was one of the best plays I have ever seen.
It added a striking depth to King’s words as he said: “Like anybody, I would like to live — a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
The Mountaintop is presented by Arts Club Theatre Company February 12 to March 14 at the Granville Island Stage. For more information, visit artsclub.com.