It’s not every day that you hear a Migos track booming out of a theatre in North Oxford, but for Katori Hall’s ambitious play The Mountaintop, which made her the first black woman in history to win the Olivier Award for Best New Play, that was only the start of many surprises.
Set during the height of America’s Civil Rights Movement, on the night before Martin Luther King’s death, the audience is transported to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on 3rd April 1968. The Mountaintop begins when Dr. King returns to his motel room on a stormy night, having just delivered one of his most iconic speeches called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple in Memphis, in support of a sanitation workers’ strike.
The historical figure of Martin Luther King understandably looms over this play, and given the frequent mythologizing of great men, we tend to approach these figures with some sort of reverence. An essential part of Hall’s writing however, is her ability to usurp this model and encourage her audience to explore the man behind the pulpit. This is in no doubt encouraged by Gbolahan Obisesan’s portrayal of King, as he faithfully imitates the cadence of King’s drawl. Obisesan’s King is very conscious of how he appears to the outside world, keeping elements of his suit on throughout his performance. Despite this, we are given intimate access to King, and from the moment we watch him urinate in his motel room, it is very clear that Hall is not interested in playing into respectability politics. Hall accentuates his flaws, even down to a hole in his socks. Hall’s King smokes, curses, and cannot stop himself from stealing lingering looks at the mysterious chambermaid, Camae.
This intimate picturing is channelled through Rajha Shakiry’s beige 60s motel suite, as the audience feels like they are looking through a window at the last moments of this man’s life. The simplistic nature of the set has the further effect of accentuating the chemistry between King and Camae. The dynamic between both characters is electric and it is only with her that he seems to be able to let his guard down.
Dramatic irony is used with great poignancy throughout the play, as everyone in the theatre excluding King knows that this is his last night on earth. Despite this fact, as events unfold it sometimes becomes hard to remember that what we are watching has effectively already become history. A powerful reminder of this is delivered when King asks Camae how she has tomorrow’s paper and she replies matter-of-factly with “Tomorrow’s already here”. Paranoia seeps into Obisesan’s portrayal of King and there are numerous references throughout to his impending death, including a mention to his contemporary Malcolm X, who was the same age as King when he died.
This sense of foreboding is channelled through Lizzie Powell’s lightning which illuminates the stage with bright light, in harmony with the thunder outside. As the lighting and thunder appear more frequently, King repeatedly shrinks back, fearing that the noises of thunder are possible gunshots. The peak of King’s frenzied paranoia marks a shift in the action of the play as Camae calls him by his birth name, Michael, in an attempt to soothe him. Thinking her a spy, King raids the motel looking for bugs and violently lunges for her.
Completely bewitching in her portrayal of Camae, Rochelle Rose takes her performance to another level when it is revealed that she is an angel that has been sent to take King to the other side. This is the pinnacle of the play’s ambitious imagining of the night before King’s death, as it weaves in metaphysical and superstitious elements. Beautiful and audacious, Rose’s Camae is the complete opposite of this ‘bougie Negro’ and we can understand and see why King is attracted and captivated by her.
We are guided through the play by Camae, who ties all the threads of the play together, and simultaneously centres the audience in the past, present, and future. This is perfectly encapsulated in the montage towards the end of the play when King agrees to accept his fate but only if he is able to see the future. What happens next is almost overwhelming, as we are whipped through a journey in history from 1968 to the present. What is most striking about this video reel is that over time some images now provoke conflicting responses, such as a picture of The Cosby Show. There are also images from our present such as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, Marvel’s Black Panther, and Serena Williams.
Undoubtedly, the play’s success lies in its function of serving as a reminder of the importance of King’s legacy, which is a fitting message for Black History Month. Contemporary relevance can also be seen in echoes to resistance movements such as Black Lives Matter through King’s constant repetition of the name ‘Larry Payne’, a 16-year-old black boy who was killed at the hands of a white police officer.
Through this montage, Camae allows King to see his dream realised. King is finally speechless after seeing the events of this distant future, and at the end of the play he invites us to be a part of this legacy by directly addressing the audience with a rousing speech and asking, “Can I get an amen?”.
Upon leaving the theatre, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of optimism but most importantly, duty. This sense of responsibility for the future is heavily discussed at the end of the play and is captured in the image of ‘passing the baton’, reminding us that, despite our society’s strides towards equality, there is still a long way to go.