Martin Luther King Jr's last night on earth may not sound like the most cheery subject but this Olivier award-winning two-hander by Memphis playwright Katori Hall is a surprisingly warm and humorous handling of some serious and interesting themes.
Played by Dave Fane, Dr King is shown as fallible and human. He blasphemes over his smelly shoes; he smokes the motel maid's cigarettes, flirting outrageously while castigating his wife for forgetting to pack his toothbrush. He's needy, vain, insecure and fearful: a real hero - with stinky feet of clay.
Directed by Fasitua Amosa, both actors are superb. Fane uses the dinky motel furniture to emphasise King's presence and makes a game attempt at King's patrician-sounding drawl (the maid calls him a "bougie Negro").
Nicole Whippy gives an exceptional performance, vivacious and spot-on in her exclamations as Camae the feisty, too-familiar maid who turns out to be more than a sassy stereotype. Hall's funny, feminist real-time script rolls off their tongues beautifully. Camae has the best lines: "God is funny as hell," she says. "God even likes dirty jokes."
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The contrast between King the orator and King backstage could be better underlined (we don't find out that in his last speech King actually said "I'm not fearing any man"). At a time of civil rights movement debate (non-violence vs physical defiance; commenting on poverty and war vs focusing solely on racial discrimination), we see King doubt his own tactics.
A counterpoint reminder of his achievements would have been useful (a pre-show glance at King's Wikipedia page and last speech will enhance your enjoyment).
Interestingly, while they have very different subjects, both The Mountaintop and Miria George's recently-produced play The Vultures critique leadership in the face of majority oppression, arguing that resistance is bigger than any sole Chosen One.
A spoken-word finale describes the imperfect "promised land" since King's death: the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is "as American as apple pie". Written in 2009, the history (now poignantly) ends with America's first Black President. Remarkable value for $25; recommended.
What: The Mountaintop
Where & when: The Basement, until November 11
Reviewer: Janet McAllister