The Mountaintop is a fictional rendering by playwright Katori Hall that takes place on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, this two-person show is a captivating and affective piece of theater.
The production opens in a small, disheveled hotel room. King (Chaz Rose) is ruminating about the weighty undertakings he needs to address while in Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike. Seeking a cup of coffee, he calls for room service and soon a young, attractive maid, Camae (Shavonna Banks) arrives. The two quickly develop a very comfortable rapport. The conversations between the sassy, care-free hotel worker and the revered civil rights leader range from portentous themes to more run-of-the-mill topics. They become friendly and playful until a surprise twist adds a more otherworldly and meditative end.
Playwright Katori Hall took inspiration for the play from King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before his assassination. In that address he declared, "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.” An eerie premonition the night before his death. Hall has crafted the show to allow the characters to discuss and debate numerous highly charged issues of the day, including race, the civil rights movement, and political turbulence. King also confides to Camae about his misgivings, fears and even death.
Hall took a lot of push back for humanizing the spiritual leader - showing “warts and all” - but the portrayal, in a fictional manner, allows for a fuller picture of King the human being. Some of the character monologues approach preachiness, but the overall impact is engrossing and powerful.
Chaz Rose is a natural to play Martin Luther King, Jr. His booming voice finely enriches his oratorical remarks and flourishes, but the strength in his performance is the manner he presents the clergyman as an ordinary man who changed a nation. The actor convincingly conveys the multiple layers to King’s persona as he struggles with the weighty issues of the day. He is both confident in his on-going work but, at times, questioning his resolve and actions.
Shavonna Banks brings spunk and a street-smart toughness to the role of Camae. She is nobody’s fool and quickly develops a well-rounded portrayal of her character. Her patter can occasionally be too quick, but once she settles into the role, the easy going, yet fitful rapport she has with the civil rights giant becomes more natural. The actress demonstrates her acting range as the frisky, soul-searching banter in the beginning of the play turns more solemn and supernatural.
Working within the premise of playwright Katori Hall’s fictional scenario, Director Gayle Samuels deftly creates an interaction between the two protagonists that is believable and organic. She effectively incorporates enough busyness and creative machinations to keep the momentum of the two-person show flowing without going stale. She skillfully directs a seamless transition between the two segments of the show, beautifully and artfully sequencing to the transcendental conclusion.
Lindsay Fuori’s set design has a claustrophobic and disheveled authenticity. RJ Romeo’s lighting and sound design, especially with the lightning and thunderstorm raging outside the hotel room - almost Biblical in its rage - is extremely effective. His projection array at the show’s conclusion is compelling and haunting.
The Mountaintop, playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through February 20, 2022. Information and tickets are at https://www.musictheatreofct.com/the-mountaintop