Passing the Baton
The Vienna Theatre Project reimagines MLK’s last night in Katori Hall’s "The Mountaintop"
It’s the night of April 3rd, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee and Martin Luther King Jr. is pillow fighting with a maid. They laugh like little children as white feathers burst from the linen, floating down to the floor like snow. He tickles her. “Don’t tickle me,” she shrieks. “You’re gonna make me pee!” They laugh. We laugh. And for a moment everybody forgets what will happen the next day.
Produced and directed by Joanna Godwin-Seidl for the Vienna Theatre Project, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is a dramatization of what could have happened on Martin Luther King’s last night. A maid brings him a cup of coffee. They take a shine to each other and end up talking into the night, revealing more and more about themselves. Hall brings King, the icon – the upright, pious preacher with a dream – down to earth, presenting him as a man who lusts, smokes and has smelly feet. Sassy and flirtatious, Camae, the maid, is his foil. “You make it easy to forget about it all,” King confesses.
The play demands a lot of its leads – a rollercoaster of emotions and energy that all takes place in one room and one act. David Wurawa brings charm and vulnerability to his Dr. King, letting us feel his determination but also his loneliness. This is a man trapped by his image and commitment to a cause, but also by his vanity. Wurawa makes us pity him. He is a reluctant hero, who feels guilty for being reluctant. Kundra Owens is excellent as Camae. With every beat of her performance spot on, she’s a powerhouse, but can reign it in for the play’s more intimate moments.
With an effective and faithful set design by Laura Mitchell, we are transported into a dream of 1968. What if this man, who gave up so much – what if he had had a chance to let loose one last time, to take off the mask, to reconcile himself. The Mountaintop is a meditation on hope, forgiveness, guilt, the burden of celebrity. It manages to be both moving and incredibly funny, finding the humor in struggle and reminding us that what’s important in the end is being able to pass the baton.