We really had no idea! Very close to curtain time on the brutally cold evening of January 24th the door at Philadelphia's Suzanne Roberts (located on our proud Avenue of the Arts) closest to the coat-check was opened for us my husband, me, and others. Because of this we were able to avoid the main entrance, quickly check our coats, hats and scarves and settle in for “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s Olivier-winning, original rendition of the last night of Martin Luther King’s life at age 39 in Room 306 of the now famous Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The evening we arrived at the theatre was brutally cold. We thought the different door opening was to help us out of the cold quickly. Perhaps it was, but only partly.
For irony followed. When seated we saw that most in the sparse audience were holding handouts given to them at the main entrance of the theatre by the stagehands and picketers of IATSE, local 8. The handout, passed on to unknowing us by a fellow theatre goer, explained that the PTC’s stagehands had been working without a contract for over six months, and the only thing they were asking for was “modest health care” and a “raise of twenty-five cents.” Quoting Dr. King, who had been in Memphis to support the AFSME Memphis Sanitation Strike, where he spoke the day before he died, the paper read, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford a hamburger.”
The distributed page also explained that “the work you will see tonight is merely a staged-reading under work-lights” and suggested that theatre goers demand “half priced tickets” as FTC was presenting “half of a show.”
I had never before crossed a picket line, and my husband, a doctor, had only crossed one once, when there was a strike at his hospital, and an ill patient needed his care. I would have left, but as we realized what was going on and the audience grew in size, Sara Garonzik, PTC’s devoted and enormously talented Artistic Dirctor, appeared to assure the audience that the company was working diligently to solve union problems. She then introduced actor,Yvette Ganier, extreme house right, who would read stage directions in place, and who did as fine a job as possible, along with the actor's total investment, to compensate for the lack of key theatrical effects and recorded sound cues. And the play, which will run until February 17th, began…..
Many know that in the 2011 New York production of “The Mountaintop,” Samuel L. Jackson played Dr. King and the sassy, provocative and puzzling motel maid, Camae, in this two person play was to be played by Halle Berry, who because of child custody issues was unable to appear. The role was then given to Angela Bassett. In Philadelphia Dr. King was played by the talented Sekou Laidlow, who gave his all and then some. And the mysterious Camae was played by the equally talented Amirah Vann.
Those who believe that doing justice to the legacy of Dr. King necessitates that he be portrayed only with reverence and solemnity for his myriad contributions and bravery should avoid this play. What the audience sees in this highly original, creative and brave, as well as startling, production, is Martin Luther King, the man -- his limitations and doubts and fears -- his personal, political and social passions, as well as his exhaustion and his lust.
We have all been exposed to unsettling comments about King the man, and though some of what has been written has been a pack of lies, some has not. An academic inquiry into his doctoral thesis in 1991 concluded that parts had been plagiarized, but that the dissertation still “makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship.”
In his 1989 book (considered a betrayal by many), “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” Dr. King’s staunch colleague, the Baptist minister, Ralph Abernathy, who was at his side, sharing Dr. King's determination to tear down the walls of segregation through non-violence for 13 years, from 1955 until King's death in April 4 1968, discusses Dr. King’s “weakness for women.” (In a later interview Abernathy claimed that King’s infidelities were emotional, rather than sexual.)
We all also know that Martin Luther King had been the target of relentless FBI investigation and privacy invasion to weaken him (and he believed, I think rightly, drive him to suicide), and that electronic surveillance of him between the years 1963 and 1968 are now held in the National Archives, to be released for public access in 2027.
Whatever negativity that may be released in the Archives has been foreshadowed to some extent in this original, determined, and thought provoking play about an American giant. What one is left with is all that this man was able to both achieve and inspire in such a very short life, and that he is an essential component and link to hope, goodness, and growth that is the continual story of his and our cherished yet flawed America.
The first third of the 90 minute, no intermission, “Mountaintop” may seem slow, and perhaps even juvenile and hackneyed. But stick with it. The two soliloquies in the final thirty minutes, first by Amirah Vann, followed by Sedou Laidlow, will leave you breathless. Their vision, truths, described journeys and forward connections, despite horrific setbacks and pain, are a political parallel to Molly Boom’s closure to “Ulysses.” When King asks the audience for an “Amen” I gave it to him, wanting also to cry out, “Yes.”
Addendum: The 15 day strike that disrupted the Philadelphia Theatre Company's run of "The Mountaintop" has ended. According to Local 8 business agent, Michael Barnes, (The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2, 2013, p. B1), when PTC producing artistic director, Sara Garonzik became involved in talks, "that turned the whole thing around." The play will run in a scaled down version without audio and lighting effects, set changes or music through February 17. In Garonzik's gracious words, "...we all just wanted this to end."