The man on the mountaintop

The Mountaintop (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, Playhouse

February 22 – March 16

The premise of “The Mountaintop” is simple: on the eve of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, he interacts with Camae, a feisty first-day-on-the-job maid at the Lorraine Motel, who is sent to Room 306 with his coffee and newspaper. We all presume to know the man who was Martin Luther King Jrn, but who exactly is this Camae? And why does she know all that she does? The answers are quite unexpected, revealed as the play moves from absorbing realism to heightened theatricality.

Like many people, I’ve done the Memphis pilgrimage to all things Graceland and Civil Rights, including the museum that was once the Lorraine Hotel, and having seen the room in which this play is set, appreciate the authenticity of the set design. This, however, is where accuracy ends, for this is not a historical re-enactment, but a warts and all reflection on the life of an inspirational leader.

King is presented as a flawed man rather than a historical figure. Having returned to his motel room on a stormy night, having just delivered his inspirational, yet ominous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Memphis Mason Temple, in support of a sanitation workers’ strike, he is tired, disillusioned, a little paranoid and quite concerned about threats on his life. And Pacharo Mzembe’s humble portrayal is a fittingly grounded one of a mortal man, ordinary in his smelly feet, chain smoking and cheeky extra-marital flirtations, yet burdened by the lofty expectations of those who seek his moral guidance.

Mountaintop 2

Candy Bowers eases into the role of Camae, just as the audience adjusts to the nuances of the distinctive Memphis accent with which she schools the Doctor (“I don’t need a PHD to give you knowledge” she says.) Her charismatic performance is a highlight, with her Southern sass sparking the drama to the point that it sometimes reduces the impact of Mzembe’s down-to-earth portrayal.

Camae is bold and brash as she confronts King with arguments counter to his central ideals of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance.  And it is here where the script truly shines, with lively language, witty dialogue and intelligent historical references, such as to Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson. Unfortunately, this lures audience members into anticipation of a naturalistic production, before undermining them with a sudden, uncomfortable shift in style from the realistic to the fanciful.

While the deliberate subversion of audience expectations initially fosters an alienating experience, this is, in part, compensated by the drama of King’s struggle in the latter part of the play as he faces his own morality in some poignant scenes, where he is assured that his men will know what to do. This reassurance is majestically achieved through the clairvoyant gift of the final scenes. Bowers, accompanied by a rousing montage of footage depicting civil rights movement through to the present day, raps about the baton being passed on, as the depth of the Playhouse stage is majestically revealed. The projections by media designers optikal bloc are technically impressive and powerful in message, allowing the ultimately uplifting theme of the work to resonate, particularly in a nation such as ours, with its own history of oppression.

Although it is a story of just two characters, set in one room, “The Mountaintop” has a lot of things going on within its 90 minute (no intermission) running time. And this confusion aside, it is an intelligent, energetic, poetic and profound play, though just not as simple as you might be expecting.

mountaintop

Photo 1 c/o – Queensland Theatre Company

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