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."