Martin Luther King, Jr. comes down off the pedestal
The Mountaintop, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Katori Hall, shows us the flesh-and-blood man behind the larger-than-life civil rights hero
It’s a Saturday afternoon in the Garden Theatre’s rehearsal space, and director Felichia Chivaughn is meticulously choreographing a pillow-fight between Essex O’Brien and Anita Whitney Bennett. The two actors are portraying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Camae, the blunt, enigmatic maid in The Mountaintop, the Laurence Olivier Award-winning play by Katori Hall. The production at the Garden Theatre runs from Jan. 21 to Feb. 6, in honor of the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.
“Hit her lower, on the side,” Chivaughn suggests. The actors laugh, uncomfortably at first, then find their rhythm, as pillows thwack bodies, and the scene takes shape.
Set in Room 306 of the Black-owned Lorraine Motel in Memphis, after King gives what turns out to be his final speech in support of striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple, the play imagines King’s final hours before his assassination on April 4, 1968. The play’s title comes from the most famous line in King’s speech: I have been to the mountaintop. It was both King’s metaphor for the Promised Land and his hope that America would live up to its ideals.
The two-character play revolves around King’s unlikely friendship with a mysterious motel maid who delivers the coffee he orders from room service. The two talk into the early hours before his murder — about racism, justice, about socks with holes, the divergent paths of legacy, and how sometimes a great man is just a man. It’s a story written to humanize King and drive the message that you don’t have to be superhuman to be a hero.
A MOTHER’S GIFT
Katori Hall, now the executive producer/showrunner behind the popular Starz stripper drama P-VALLEY (based on her play Pussy Valley), grew up in Memphis and originally wrote The Mountaintop as a gift to her mother. Carrie Mae, had wanted to hear King speak in 1968 when she was 15, but Hall’s grandmother was having none of that. She forced her to stay home, afraid of what might happen to her if she went.
"Big Mama ... was like, 'You know they're gon' bomb that church, girl,” Hall told NPR’s All Things Considered in 2018, voicing her grandmother. “You know they're gon' bomb that church, so you need to sit your butt down, and you ain't going to that church.”
Carrie Mae always said that missing King’s speech was the biggest regret of her life, so the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright sat down and wrote The Mountaintop, then named the maid Camae after her mother. “I wanted to put both of them in the same room and give my mother that opportunity that she didn’t have in 1968,” Hall said.
The Mountaintop premiered on London’s West End in 2010 and won an Olivier Award — England’s version of a Tony — for Best New Play.
A COMPLICATED HISTORY
Back in Winter Garden, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade is coming straight down Plant Street, crossing directly in front of the Garden Theatre, which still has its “Black entrance” from its days as a Jim Crow-era movie house.
The parade used to be just an East Winter Garden event, originating from the Mildred Dixon Center in the historically Black neighborhood and winding through the city’s industrial area. Then in 2020 — 12 years after Sen. Barack Obama was elected president of the United States — city officials made the parade a citywide event.
“We moved the event and parade to downtown to allow for a more inclusive event and make it an official city event,” City Clerk Angela Grimmage wrote in an email.
In 2021, the parade was cancelled because of the pandemic, so 2022 is only the second year that the parade passed through downtown Winter Garden and only the second time it passed by the Garden Theatre’s marquee, which coincidentally was advertising The Mountaintop, only the second play in the theater’s history by a Black playwright, featuring a Black cast and directed by a Black director.
Though this all looks perfectly planned — a play about King, by a Black playwright, opening the week of his birthday — the schedule was actually more fluid.
“We had a bunch of different shows in this position,” said artistic director Joseph C. Walsh when we got together with Chivaugh recently for a Zoom interview. “There's always a moment in time where something happens that makes you think, We're going to move forward with this production, with this play. And that was the Jan. 6 insurrection. It was after that, that I decided this play must be told.
“After Jan. 6, women said to me, I am disappointed. I am angry that I cannot take my daughter to Washington D.C. to see the first woman and the first woman of color to be inaugurated as vice president of the United States,” Walsh continued. “That was the moment that I said this play has to be told now. This story has to be told now in honor of Dr. King and in honor of Camae and in honor of all of the women who couldn't bring their daughters to go and see Kamala Harris be inaugurated as vice president of the United States.”
The Mountaintop was the right play at the right time and at the right theater. Walsh just needed the right team to tell the story.
“I remember when I reached out to Felichia and asked her to do the play. Because of Katori Hall and because of the female perspective on this moment in history, the only person I could think of to direct this show was Felichia. I am inspired by Felichia and how she raises her voice and felt that she was the correct voice to tell the story at this time.”
The main thing Chivaughn wants you to know about The Mountaintop is that this is not some dry biography about King’s life. “I know we've seen tons of documentaries on Dr. King and his work.” she laughs on the Zoom call. “This is not that.”
“My approach is to tell the story of these two humans in a room, in an intimate space together, when no one else is watching, and they can finally present themselves in truth and vulnerability,” said Chivaughn. “With Martin Luther King, Jr., or with any hero, we put them on pedestals.”
King, Chivaughn points out, is not the only hero on the stage. “Camae does so much for Dr. King at this moment by extending grace, by helping him to reconcile with the past, the present and the future, and in her way, is a hero.”
No stranger to the Garden Theatre stage, Chivaughn is a writer and actor in her own right, who played Belle in A Christmas Carol with the itinerant theater company Beth Marshall Presents. Her directorial debut at the Garden Theatre follows Roberta Emerson, the theater’s first-ever Black director who helmed A Raisin in the Sun in March 2021.
“It’s a full-circle moment from walking on that stage to being able to work behind the stage and do The Mountaintop together,” said the Jamaica native who now lives in Orlando. “It’s groundbreaking history for the theater.''
Change often brings resistance. Chivaughn shared with the cast that when King visited Orlando in 1964, local news didn't even want to cover his visit out of fear that "if people were inspired by him, they would want change."
"It's fear of change," she said.
The Garden Theatre is experiencing some fear around some of the change it's instituted. Walsh himself has heard grumbling about his choices for the 2021-2022 season. Though the season included Big: The Musical and Looped and will close out with Beauty and the Beast and Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s On Your Feet, it also featured Man of La Mancha, which was set in a Southwest border detention center and read like a cry for immigration reform. And next up is Parade, a dark musical based on a true story about the 1913 lynching of a Jewish man falsely accused of rape and murder in Georgia. For patrons perhaps more used to seasons stacked with lighter fare, like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the changes could be understandably disquieting.
And yet, these are the kinds of productions that can put a small city’s regional theater on the map and build it into something renowned like the Actors Theater in Louisville, the Cleveland Playhouse or Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
Proof of concept, of course, is in the numbers. And according to Walsh, Garden Theatre subscriptions are way up. “If you look at the people that are coming into the shows, we have 300-plus more subscriptions this year than last.”
“The challenge is that we have a very small but loud contingent who says things can’t change because that's how we've always done it,” he said. “Part of what people may be balking at is a change in programming, a change in demographic of audience, and I think, How does that exclude you? How is including others excluding you?”
“The greatest gift that we can give is reaching across the aisle. Forgive the term, but I'm talking about the theater aisle,” said Walsh. “The goal is to create a safe space for everyone. The wider our arms reach, the safer this space becomes, as we invite everybody to come in.”
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: The Mountaintop
WHERE: Garden Theatre 160 W. Plant Street, Winter Garden
WHEN: 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
SPECIAL PERFORMANCES: Jan. 27 7:30 p.m., Talk Back; Feb. 3 7:30 p.m., ASL Interpreted
Fact-based, Focused and Fearless Journalism
Everyone should have access to independent, factual and ethical reporting about local politics, government and community issues. That’s why we’re asking you to make a contribution and invest in news that matters. Every $1 makes a difference. And your donation is TAX DEDUCTIBLE. Thank you. Click here to donate.