The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop measures MLK's journey for civil rights, but says we still have a ways to go

Carla Nickerson 
and Marc Pouhé
Carla Nickerson and Marc Pouhé (Photo courtesy of Christopher Loveless)

Moses in a Memphis motel room, April 1968.

That's the portrait painted by Katori Hall in her compelling 2009 drama, its subject being Martin Luther King Jr. on the last night of his life. Taking her cue from the final speech given by the civil rights leader – the one which ended with him telling the crowd that he, like the Biblical patriarch who led his people out of Egypt, might not live to enter the "Promised Land" with them, but that he'd seen it from the mountain's top – the playwright carries us deeper into the dark and stormy night following that portentous address, probing MLK's humanity, mortality, destiny, and legacy in the modest confines of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.

Hall begins by stripping off the saintly robes that have accumulated on King in death, taking pains to reveal the man in Martin: craving a pack of Pall Malls and impatiently peering out the door for Ralph Abernathy to bring it to him, emptying his bladder in the toilet, shedding his shoes and wincing at the odor of his own "stanky" feet, appreciatively eyeing the figure of the maid who brings him some coffee. This is an MLK with appetites and desires, and in Austin Playhouse's staging, under the steady hand of Producing Artistic Director Don Toner, Marc Pouhé conveys them with such earthy gusto that, however much talk there may be of the spiritual – and in time there will be much – we never lose sight of this King as bound in flesh and blood. He is no monumental martyr cut from marble, but someone human-sized and mortal – almost painfully so.

This becomes clear as King's extended conversation with that maid – to whom there's more than meets the eye – delves into matters of greater consequence than smokes and MLK's mustache. They speak of the fight for civil rights, race relations, hatred, violence, the threats against King, and the death that inevitably awaits him, and whatever the subject, the word "fear" surfaces like the thunderclaps that break in on them scene after scene. It is the thing that blacks and whites share, King insists: "We all scared – scared of each other, scared of ourselves. Fear makes us human." Later, he even says that fear "has become my companion, my lover," and at one point, we see the depths of that intimacy when one of those thunderclaps robs him of breath. As his King falls back, clutching at his collar, the terror in Pouhé's face is almost unbearable, and his panicked repetition of the phrase, "I can't breathe" adds a chilling resonance to the moment.

That isn't the only scene where this play, rooted in the past, summons the present. As talk turns to the time after King's death and what that "Promised Land" might look like for the people who have fought so hard for equality and justice, Hall turns the play's gaze forward and creates space to consider MLK's legacy. In a striking sequence that breaks free of the play's naturalism, Carla Nickerson – who, as the maid, Camae, has gracefully shapeshifted her way through shyness and flirtatiousness, cynicism and hope, censure and comfort, the sacred and the profane – turns poetic cantor and chants her way through the 45 years of American history since MLK's assassination, both the civil rights triumphs and tragedies. One is left with a powerful sense of both the progress we owe to King and how much of the battle is still left to be fought. When it concludes, a newly impassioned MLK speaks to the audience, his future, of the Promised Land, imploring us, like Moses, to finish the journey he couldn't. "Your time is now," he says. And in that plea an echo can be heard that puts truth to its urgency: "I can't breathe."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Austin Playhouse
Austin Playhouse's <i>Tiny Beautiful Things</i>
Austin Playhouse's Tiny Beautiful Things
There's excellent work in Austin Playhouse's production about Cheryl Strayed writing an advice column, but where's the humility?

Elizabeth Cobbe, Jan. 24, 2020

Austin Playhouse's <i>She Loves Me</i>
Austin Playhouse's She Loves Me
This old-fashioned rom-com musical oozes charm and earns its Pollyanna platitudes

Bob Abelman, Dec. 6, 2019

More Arts Reviews
<i>The Hunting Wives</i> by May Cobb
The Hunting Wives
When the Austin author leads you into the Piney Woods for her new thriller, the trip is sultry and surprising

Rosalind Faires, May 14, 2021

Carrie Fountain's Third Collection of Poetry Illuminates the Day-to-Day
Carrie Fountain's Third Collection of Poetry Illuminates the Day-to-Day
The Austin author lives The Life

Rosalind Faires, May 7, 2021

More by Robert Faires
Tony Hinchcliffe's Stand-up Racism
Tony Hinchcliffe's Stand-up Racism
Kill Tony host spews slurs at fellow comic Peng Dang

May 13, 2021

Austin Opera Races Back Into Live Performance With <i>Tosca</i> at Circuit of the Americas
Austin Opera Races Back Into Live Performance With Tosca at Circuit of the Americas
The company brings grand opera to the Grand Prix with an outdoor staging of Puccini's powerhouse

April 30, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Marc Pouhé, Carla Nickerson, Katori Hall

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle