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THE MOUNTAINTOP - Chester Theatre Company

Playwright Katori Hall introduces us to Martin Luther King in his room in the fateful Memphis motel as he instructs Ralph Abernathy to get him a pack of Pall Malls, then goes into the bathroom to urinate, thus signaling that THE MOUNTAINTOP will present a decidedly human side of the slain civil rights leader. But Katori digs deep into the spiritual side of King (vividly played by Jordan Mahome) by introducing a fictional character called Camae, young, attractive Black chambermaid of mysterious identity (a smart and sprite Shelley Fort) who delivers coffee to King’s room. For 80 minutes, King and Camae spar, cajole, seduce each other (almost), and share their experiences as African Americans, visionary leader and everyday working girl, that plumbs, ultimately, the universal human question – why did the Lord put us here on earth?

Katori’s imaginative scenario for the last hours of King’s life is combination psycho-historical fantasia, de-mythologizing the legend, and exercise in civic philosophy. It’s an ambitious work, along with Katori’s other plays like her darkly comedic satire WHATABLOODCLOT!!! and the moving OUR LADY OF KIBEHO, making her one of the most versatile playwrights on the scene today.

Katori’s narrative here is strongest when she dramatizes King’s reactions to events swirling around him. We know from the FBI’s 1960s counterintelligence programs targeting King that he was hunted: what Katori weaves into her drama - and Mahome conveys palpably - is how King knew his hunter was closing in. Director Colette Roberts achieves a dreadful, tightening sense of inevitability on the stage, in a claustrophobic interpretation, designed by Travis George, of the room where King spent his final night on earth.

King’s final soliloquy, stirringly delivered by Mahome, is backdropped by a shifting montage of news images from 1968 until today. The visuals annotate Katori’s text for King but his words are clarion enough. When King says “the baton has been dropped… don’t give in until you reach the mountaintop… we can see the promised land,” it’s a profound reminder in these very days of summer in 2016 that we are still “so close yet so far away.”

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