Story: Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis has a lone occupant on April 3, 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has returned to what the desk clerk jokingly refers to as the “King-Abernathy Suite” on the eve of a big speech he’s preparing for the Memphis sanitation workers.
It’s a stormy night, and Dr. King is fidgety. He asks for a cup of coffee to be delivered to his room while he awaits a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes (“no cheap Winstons”) for which he’s sent one of his assistants. A young maid named Camae arrives with his coffee. She says it’s her first night on the job, but she freely engages in banter with Dr. King, whom she coyly says is famous “like The Beatles.”
Camae is surprisingly forward in her rambling ways and given to a streak of cursing, including a blasphemous epithet or two that rankle the reverend. She has a way of alleviating the leader’s troubles and torments, though, as they engage in flirtations and then increasingly philosophical and theological debates. She even tells him that he’s going to die on the next day, even as he protests that his work is far from over. Is this young motel cleaning woman more than she appears to be?
Highlights: Katori Hall, a young playwright who hails from Memphis, won the 2009 Olivier Award for Best Play when her two-character, one-act drama had its world premiere in London. A 2011 production on Broadway featured star-power performers Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and the regional premiere in Milwaukee in September 2012 has been followed by a number of performances in other cities, including this St. Louis premiere in the Black Rep’s current production.
Obviously, with just two characters, the weight of a performance must necessarily be carried by its two players as well as Hall’s writing. In the case of the Black Rep’s presentation, Ronald L. Conner and Alicia Reve prove more than equal to Hall’s uneven script and make the most of the sometimes flimsy material.
Other Info: Hall certainly has a gift for imagination and for conjuring whimsical situations, as evidenced by her take on what could have transpired on Dr. King’s final night before his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The problem is that, even at 90 minutes or so, there’s a feeling of considerable padding to the script and a lack of engagement that subsequently results.
The story is further diluted with a borderline ludicrous video montage near its conclusion assembled by lighting designer and projectionist Jim Burwinkel that seems shallow and more focused on Hollywood types than serious social and political ramifications of the last half-century.
Nonetheless, Conner once again demonstrates the power and persuasion of his on-stage persona with an ingratiating performance as Dr. King. He captures the essence of the man, rather than the history book legend, and capably shows the many human foibles and frailties that tormented King as they do all of us.
Conner is far more slender than was King, and he doesn’t really sound too much like him until his final speech, when he evokes both the spirit and quality of Dr. King’s charismatic delivery. Hall would be well advised to drop the slide projection entirely and focus on this riveting moment for her work’s climax.
Reve is equal to the task of working opposite the imposing Conner. She fills Camae with a wondrously infectious spirit, a vital young woman who admits she curses inadvertently, spewing a stream of vulgarities that might raise hackles on the more easily offended in an audience. She’s a marvelous performer, though, utilizing all the tools at her disposal, i.e., gesticulations, expressions and alluring movements to convey Camae’s vitality and her obvious effect on Dr. King.
Linda Kennedy’s direction maintains an easy sway between her two players as they rhythmically move to each other’s speech patterns and interpretations. She shrewdly uses the expanse of Burwinkel’s efficient set design, which features an era-appropriate Lorraine Motel sign at stage right and a non-descript motel room with dirty windows and a depressingly filthy mirror to match. It’s not a place anyone would pick for a final destination, further underscoring the tragedy of the circumstances.
Daryl Harris adorns Conner in a drab suit typical of the era and Reve in domestic attire, while Robin Weatherall’s sound design accentuates the turbulence of the weather as well as some arresting supernatural moments.
Hall succeeds in making the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accessible to modern audiences, including anyone under 50 who most likely have little memory of the Civil Rights movement he led so courageously. That’s much more successful than her too-often stilted and awkward script.
Play: The Mountaintop
Group: St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Thursdays through Sundays through March 9
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein