It is the night before the day of reckoning. A traveler does what any ordinary man might do when he returns to his motel room late at night. He orders from room service, he calls home to speak to his wife, he urinates. But this is no ordinary man; this traveler is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At age 39 he is one of the most polarizing men in America, worshiped by some and reviled by others. As the face and voice of the African American civil-rights movement, he has brought about unimagined change through nonviolent civil disobedience. But just now, at the outset of Katori Hall's play The Mountaintop, which is currently on view at the Black Rep, King's immediate goals are not so ambitious. Just now, he wants to get out of the rain, sip a cup of coffee and fire up a Pall Mall.
Was Pall Mall King's brand? Probably so; the background of this script seems to be airtight. Clearly Hall has done her homework. She is well versed on the minutiae of King's life and of his final trip to Memphis on behalf of a sanitation workers' strike. We now know, for instance, that the Spartan contents of his overnight bag included some unfinished speeches. So this intermissionless play begins with King, just back from what would be the final speech of his life at the Mason Temple ("I've been to the mountaintop"), revising an unfinished speech and asking himself, "What shall I say? What shall I say?"
His concentration is interrupted when a motel employee arrives with coffee. Because Hall's portrayal of King is so accurate, she enjoys the luxury of fabricating a fictional character in Camae, an alluring young woman with whom anyone might wish to while away an evening. "I ain't your ordinary old maid," Camae tells her celebrated host, and indeed she's not. She charms him into candor. "We are all scared," King acknowledges. "Fear makes us human."
Did such a conversation occur? Of course not. But the measure of The Mountaintop is that in a story as fanciful as It's a Wonderful Life, the script never oversteps the bounds of believability. This Martin Luther King is a brave yet frightened figure who can state from experience that "a negro man is not safe in the pulpit." At the same time, this King is modeled after Icarus, who in Greek mythology paid the ultimate price for flying too near the sun. The image is apt: On the very next day, after he was assassinated outside this same room at the Lorraine Motel (now the site of the inspiring National Civil Rights Museum), King began his ascent into the realm of myth.
The Black Rep staging serves the play well. Linda Kennedy has directed the piece simply and cleanly, with an emphasis on performance. Alicia Reve's sassy Camae is both irreverent and angelic. In portraying King, Ronald L. Conner reminds us of the responsibility of the actor-as-steward. Although initially the timbre of his voice seems too light for King, this is quickly forgotten through the conviction of Conner's performance. At evening's end, when a photo of the real Martin Luther King Jr. is projected onto the stage, we realize how successfully Conner has inhabited the role.
Perhaps it's worth noting that The Mountaintop was not embraced when it opened on Broadway in 2011. Some critics disparaged the piece as "thin." The play was shut out of Tony Awards contention. But there's a difference between thin and gossamer. Those who seek a weightier account should watch King, the four-and-a-half-hour 1978 television miniseries that features a brilliant title-role portrayal by Paul Winfield. The Mountaintop's ambitions are more modest than that, and also subtler. In seeking to present an affecting reverie on the life and legacy of King, it succeeds admirably.