Beyond Selma: See the “real” Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop at Vancouver’s Arts Club

Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Photo by David Cooper

Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Photo by David Cooper

When you’re watching the Oscars this Sunday, one name bound to come up again and again is Selma. The acclaimed drama celebrates one of the most triumphant episodes in the life of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, his courageous march to Selma, Alabama, in the face of violent opposition.

A very different perspective on King – a peek into the real man behind the legend – is on offer now in Vancouver at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage. The acclaimed play The Mountaintop zeroes in on King’s last night on earth, spent in an ordinary Memphis motel. The moving work paints a portrait of the civil rights leader not as a history-book hero but as a flesh-and-blood man, flawed, uncertain and daunted by the huge challenges that loom ahead.

The play opens on April 3, 1968 – the night before King’s assassination – in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King has just returned from delivering one of his most magnificent speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in support of a local sanitation workers’ strike. But there’s nothing magnificent about his surroundings or his current condition.

Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Photo by David Cooper

Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Photo by David Cooper

King is exhausted from a long road trip.  He’s suffering from a cough and is disappointed at the low turnouts to his speeches. On a stormy night, his seedy motel room is the picture of dreariness – garish colours, tired, worn furniture. And this is exactly the effect that the playwright, Katori Hall, wants to create.

Born in Memphis in 1981, Hall grew up surrounded by the myth of Martin Luther King. What was always missing, however, was the idea of him as a real living person – suffering the same doubts and indignities (big and small) as anyone else. So early in the play we learn that King has smelly feet, that he chain smokes and that he lies to his wife – details not likely to be found in official biographies.

The tension in the play ratchets up when King gets a knock on the door. A maid at the hotel, Camae, has brought him a cup of coffee.  He invites her in and Camae turns out to be a handful – outspoken and foulmouthed in equal turns, full of opinions and quite flirtatious. A chemistry develops between King and Camae as the evening wears on, which intensifies and then, suddenly, takes an unexpected twist – because Camae is not at all whom she seems to be.

Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Photo by David Cooper

Dion Johnstone and Crystal Balint. Photo by David Cooper

To not spoil the surprise, I’ll leave it at that.

The Mountaintop comes to Vancouver after a long and critically acclaimed run. It won Britain’s Olivier Award for Best New Play when it opened in 2010. And in its 2011 Broadway premiere, King was played by no less a stage presence than Samuel L. Jackson. For those seeking a more nuanced picture of the hero portrayed in Selma – a humanized and humanizing view of the American legend – The Mountaintop is essential viewing.

The Mountaintop runs through March 14 at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage. Tickets start at $29.

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  1. Pingback: Critics are moved by THE MOUNTAINTOP | Arts Club Theatre Company