Queensland Theatre Company’s latest offering The Mountain Top, sits perfectly in QTC’s 2014 canon of works which Artistic Director Wesley Enoch states is the year of leadership. Enoch comments in the program notes that each play in the season “expresses a concept of leadership and social growth”.
The Mountain Top, set on a rainy night in April 1968 at a modest Motel room in Memphis, explores a creative, provocative, re-imagining of the last night of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, the night before he was assassinated.
The one-act two-hander has a plot twist that it would be a spoiler to mention, but let’s just say that it is a more philosophical, ethereal take on events which gathers inspiration from the almost prophetic speech King made only hours before at Mason Temple: “I’ve been to the mountaintop … and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that tonight, we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Weary from a year of leading the civil rights movement, the preacher checks into room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. When he calls for room service, King gets more than a cup of coffee from a brassy, potty mouth, African American housemaid Camae. As she challenges and cajoles King, they look back on decades of civil rights history and the very human side of King as he struggles with his own self-doubt, temptation, humanity, and mortality; as he wonders who will carry on the baton?
Director Todd MacDonald (Associate Director of QTC), quotes writer Katori Hall in the program: “This isn’t the ‘I Have a Dream’ King. This is King, the man, not the myth. I want people to see that this extraordinary man — who is actually quite ordinary — achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we, as a people, interact with each other.”
Katori Hall’s writing is witty, pithy, and well paced, providing a good balance of ethos and pathos. It is easy to see why The Mountain Top won an Olivier Award for Best New Play, and sold out on the West End and Broadway.
Casting this show would not have been easy. Not only did it require particular physical attributes, but it required an actor with a certain gravitas to play Dr Martin Luther King Jnr – leader, preacher, activist. The seemingly secondary role of the maid had to equal the presence of such a great man, given a two-hander.
Zimbabwe-born, Brisbane-based actor Pacharo Mzembe as King and actor, activist and hip-hop artist Candy Bowers as Camae, have great chemistry and charm; and with their playful banter offer many comedic moments. Yes, this play, even given that the civil rights movement provides the backdrop, is funny. In one scene, King puts in a phone call to God, which we learn from Camae is an African-American woman. Another favourite scene is where Camae puts on King’s shoes and suit jacket, jumps up on the bed, and delivers her own civil rights speech. Most impressive was Mzembe’s speech as King the preacher towards the end. His sermon was so convincing in thought, action, heart, and vocal quality, it needs commendation for his study of not just character but a portrayal of such a well recognised individual.
Towards the end, the play abruptly changed format as the simple motel room set (designed by Kieran Swann) opened up to a visual presentation when King asked, “Who will take my place when I am gone?” After the initial adjustment in my brain to just go-with-the-flow, the multimedia projection designed by the talented audio visual artists Optikal Bloc (Stephen Brodie and Craig Wilkinson) and Busty Beatz, along with lighting by Ben Hughes and sound design by Tony Brumpton, launched an intentional assault to the senses, displaying a chaotic montage of the triumphs and tragedies of the civil rights movement.
Bowers also shines here as she raps and introduces this piece of performance art with the message, “The baton passes on”. Even more than passing on a message, the ending provoked a challenge for each of us in the audience to pick up that baton.