We went to see this play in the capital one slushy January afternoon. We were in the building two hours and we came out our faces dirty with dried tears.
We had seen The Mountaintop, an imagining of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night in a Memphis hotel room before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, written by Katori Hall and performed by the Trinity Repertory Company. The play has only two characters: Dr. King, and Camae, a maid, sent by the hotel to deliver his late-night coffee.
After a brief exchange, the two begin a prolonged and eclectic conversation, drifting between different matters of different sizes, from the complications of the present political landscape to whether or not King should shave his mustache. Sometimes, they flirt; other times, they fight. For nearly an hour, Hall lets them talk, carving out her vision of the complicated man and, through Camae, the ethos of the people he is fighting for—juxtaposes battered optimism with nonchalant realism.
As the conversation reaches its climax, Camae reveals herself as an angel, sent to shepherd the civil rights leader away to heaven. In denial at first, King quickly turns to his unfinished work, and to his family. He resolves to ask God for more time; after a heated exchange over the hotel telephone, she (yes, she) refuses, but offers to show him the future.
Then, the motel room disintegrates, and Camae launches into a final speech, covering the fate of King’s cause up to the play’s premier, backed by images and video clips appearing on different surfaces around the hall—her final words: ‘Black presidents’. After marveling, King delivers a final rhetoric, asking us, imploring us to carry on his work.
So ends the play. Heroic. Bold. Moving.
But between Camae’s Speech and King’s final address, as if something has broken or become corrupted (we are not sure if this is a stage direction or the director’s choice), the images continue past “black presidents” on to the present day.
Then King makes his speech, issues his call to action, and then the play ends.
The Mountaintop premiered in 2009. June 2009 to be precise–the peak of the post-‘08 high and the precipice of all that has led to our present moment.
The play derives its title from King’s final speech, where, prophetically, he warns that he might not live to see his work to completion; at the same time, however, he reassures his audience that their goal will be achieved eventually: God has allowed him to “go up to the mountaintop”, from which he has seen “the promised land”.
No doubt, when the play was first performed, the actors, the director, maybe even the playwright thought the country had arrived or were about to arrive in this “Canaan”. That last speech likely assumed an almost vestigial role: just make sure to keep building the buttresses under the upward-soaring arc.
But those were not the words we heard on January 18th, 2017.
Works of art mean different things to different people at different times. Though a text or score may persist unchanged, the interpretations and the very meanings we find in them vary infinitely—arise from within our momentary selves.
By Trent Babington