On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on a Lorraine Motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. In town to support striking African-American sanitation workers, King had delivered his famed "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address just one night before. Playwright Katori Hall examines what might have happened to King between the speech and the shot in her Olivier Award-winning play The Mountaintop, which receives its Pittsburgh premiere at City Theatre.
The good news is that Hall's play is a hugely entertaining example of "magic realism," a literary style in which extraordinary things happen in an ordinary way. The bad news is that most of those extraordinary things are big plot revelations — and it's against the Sacred Critic's Code® to reveal surprises in a review.
So I can't tell you what happens in The Mountaintop, except to say it's nothing you expect.
We begin in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel (recreated to absolute perfection by Tony Ferrieri), where King finds himself restless and alone after returning from his speech. He calls the front desk for room service; Camae, a new maid working at the motel, promptly appears at his door, and an intermissionless two-character drama unfolds.
But again: It's not what you think. It's helpful to know that in advance, because early on, Hall seems headed for stereotype and scandal. But then the play zooms off in another direction entirely and you realize that you've been set up because ...
... well, I can't tell you. But this is a freewheeling evening filled with imagination, audacity and humor. Only the last few moments disappoint, with a heretofore-absent sentimentality.
Director Peter Flynn does a marvelous job finding an emotional spine in Hall's constantly shifting landscape. He also oversees two remarkably detailed performances.
With intensely interior emotion and flashes of oratorical thunderstorms, Albert Jones summons an incredibly human King. Not bound by historical imperatives, Bianca LaVerne Jones deploys her excellent comedic style as the forcefully funny maid. Hall has created two characters who reflect each other perfectly: With Flynn's assistance, Jones and Jones have done exactly that.