Play imagines last night of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 3, 1968, crowds packed into a church in Memphis, Tennessee, to hear what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to say about the injustices that led the city's sanitation workers to strike. Toward the end of the speech, King closed with words that have since been interpreted by many as a premonition of his death.
“Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you,” King said, before offering a vision of hope for equality and justice for all.
While this was only the coda to King's remarks that evening, the entire speech has become known as “The Mountaintop” speech.
A similar notion is at work in Katori Hall's play “The Mountaintop,” in which the last night of King's life is imagined. Back in his hotel room, King lays down and, perhaps in a dream, encounters a mysterious stranger who forces him to consider his legacy both as a champion of social justice and as a human being.
Alan Bomar Jones will direct the two-person show, which opens this weekend to kick off a series of events and programs sponsored by the King Arts Complex to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's untimely death. (This production of “The Mountaintop” is co-presented with Short North Stage.) The show closes on the anniversary of “The Mountaintop” speech.
“I think the fact that it's loosely based on his famous speech, and taking that mountaintop [concept] and making it into a premonition of him foreseeing his death, is very interesting,” Jones said. “It's an honor to do this show, in particular for the King Arts Complex.”
Jones cautioned that the play also explores King's very human side — the mysterious stranger is a young woman — in ways that may make some audience members uncomfortable.
“There is a protective mechanism that African-Americans automatically have for Dr. King, and I understand that,” Jones said. “The show does play on his flirtatious side, shows you the man not in the public eye, shows him as both martyr and man. At the same time, it's a fictionalized account. These people never met. And the point of theater is not real life but imagination and point of view.”
These kinds of creative expressions inform the three weeks of King Arts Complex programming titled “MLK: 50 Years Later.”
“He was chosen to be a great leader, and people still remember the impact he had on their lives,” Jevon Collins, performing arts director at the KAC, said of King. “Still, 50 years later, it feels like there are some similar situations in race relations. We need to know our past and carry it into the future.”
In addition to “The Mountaintop,” arts programming for “MLK: 50 Years Later” will include offerings by NIA Performing Arts, the Harmony Project and jazz trumpeter Terell Stafford. King colleague and friend the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. will speak on April 5, the 50th anniversary of King's funeral, at the KAC's Pythian Theater. And the King Arts Complex is encouraging participation in “Sixty Seconds for Peace,” linking up with worldwide partners for a global event on April 4 at 7:01 p.m.
“We want people to take 60 seconds for peace to honor a man who died for peace,” Collins said.