Paradox Players' The Mountaintop

In this powerful production of Katori Hall's drama, MLK wrestles with his life's meaning – and maybe an angel

Jasmin Garlic (l) as Camae and John R. Christopher as MLK in Paradox Players' The Mountaintop

April 3, 1968: the night before Martin Luther King Jr. is killed. Earlier that day, he's delivered a speech calling out death, proclaiming he's not afraid, but the reality is far more nuanced. When he enters the hotel room where hours later he will die, he searches behind the bed frame and nightstand for wiretaps. Cracks of thunder that echo like gunshot in the sky cause him to clutch his chest in fear. He's a man, not just a martyr, and his last night on earth reflects that. It's explored by the Paradox Players in Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, through an imagined interaction with an enigmatic maid at the Lorraine Motel.

The maid, Camae (Jasmin Garlic), and MLK (John R. Christopher) are the sole characters in the show, and it's a pas de deux between the two of them. Christopher is a booming presence, what you'd want of your MLK, filling the space with intoned speeches and future plans. But he's fidgety, too, smoking Pall Malls and flirting with Camae, a sprightly, frenetic "angel" who confronts him with another side of the Black experience. Possibly it's better, she suggests, to be more like Malcolm X, murdered just three years before. MLK doubts Malcolm has made it to heaven, all that violence, all that incited hate. But Camae assures King that he is indeed there. After all, she wryly observes, Malcolm didn't smoke, drink, or cheat on his wife.

Moments like this draw King into the light, painting him as the well-rounded figure that history has shown him to be. Because the play is a dialogue, the playwright also provides similar attention to Camae, a figure of Black womanhood, different than King. She doesn't hold a Ph.D., but she understands the ways of the world. She's a laborer – of sorts – but her philosophy is razor-sharp, honed in the streets. After the show, a fellow critic informed me that Garlic is new to acting, but you wouldn't know it watching The Mountaintop. She holds her own against the more seasoned Christopher, and the two together make for a powerful evening of theatre, history, and religion.

I use religion in the more generalized sense of the word, as in the "cause, nature, and purpose of the universe." God is mentioned, of course, an offstage character reachable via cellphone. MLK was a reverend, after all. Also, the show is housed in the First Unitarian Universalist Church, and the theatre is plain in that it's an open church hall with flat folding chairs around a circle of simple setting. But all this works in the show's favor. Both warm and powerful women directors, Rachelle Chery and Chelsea Manasseri, were on hand to greet audience members, and the best of this show felt the way theatre can sometimes feel, like a presence and conversation you can only have live, with the people around you. The Mountaintop will invite you to reflect on your own purpose as you consider MLK's.

The Mountaintop

First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover
Through March 8
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.

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Paradox Players, Katori Hall, Rachelle Chery, Chelsea Manasseri, John Christopher, Jasmin Garlic, Martin Luther King Jr.

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