REP’s latest keeps secrets that unfold through exceptional acting
By Charlene Baldridge | SDUN Theater Critic
Through March 31, San Diego Repertory Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” billed as a drama about the last night in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The civil rights leader was assassinated April 4, 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.
A graduate of The Juilliard School, Hall is the author of “Hoodoo Love,” seen last season at Mo’olelo Theatre. “The Mountaintop” received the 2010 Olivier Award for best new play and recently played on Broadway, starring Angela Bassett and Samuel S. Jackson.
Theatergoers who experienced “Hoodoo Love” know that Hall employs excursions into other realms of reality. Knowing and allowing that prepares one for “The Mountaintop.” Where one might expect to find a man preparing his next speech and ruing the slim turnout for that day’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” delivered in the rain, Hall gives much more.
San Diego REP’s “Mountaintop” director, Roger Guenveur Smith, cast two exceptional West Coast actors in Hall’s play: Larry Bates as Dr. King and Danielle Moné Truitt as Camae, the sassy hotel maid who brings him a cup of coffee, shares her cigarettes (pantomimed) and flask, and provides the play’s unanticipated twist.
At first one suspects that the attractive Camae may have plans to seduce the man she so admires and who is a known womanizer. Power attracts and God knows this man is attractive, fallible and human. Apparently this is what King expects of Camae. To divulge that the woman has a hidden agenda may come as no surprise to theatergoers, yet to reveal more would be a spoiler.
Let us just say that the gradual unfolding of Camae’s mission – carried out with great humor and intelligence – is surprising and even thrilling. Certainly a feminist, she has one insouciant, defiant speech after another. Truitt’s extreme skill at building her character and delivering Hall’s irreverent words is motivation to attend.
Bates resembles Dr. King somewhat, which helps create the illusion of a conflicted man about to become martyr. King is tired; bone tired. There is little fire in the man this night, certainly a challenge for Bates the actor to limn without delivering a lackluster performance. In his hands King becomes extra human, and one feels that is Hall’s purpose.
Without humor the piece would definitely sink. Without fine actors it would bomb.
As affecting as it is, and as fine as these actors are, once its secrets are revealed, Hall’s play seems to loop around and around, making little progress toward the mountaintop. When achieved, it is bleak.
Scenic designer Christopher Ward provides a set evocative of room 304 at the Lorraine Hotel. Sherrice Kelly’s lighting and Marc Anthony Thomson’s lighting and sound give onlookers a thrilling storm, replete with thunderclaps and lightning. Anastasia Pautova’s chambermaid getup is deliciously off the wall, and King’s attire is appropriate though perhaps not as worn as the man.
WHERE: San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza (Downtown)
WHEN: Thurs. – Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m., and selected Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Through March 31.