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'The Mountaintop' at Arena Stage

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

On April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a rally in support of black public works employees, delivering his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address at Mason Temple. That night, he stayed in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. The next day, he was assassinated on the balcony of that motel.

Katori Hall's intriguing play about the night before that tragic event, "The Mountaintop," is playing at Arena Stage, directed ably by Robert O'Hara.

There are only two characters in "The Mountaintop:" King (Bowman Wright) and a young woman who is a maid at the motel, Camae (Joaquina Kalukango). They couldn't be more different. He is a nationally recognized figure. He knows the importance of the work he is doing and is tortured when he can't get his next day's speech to sound right.

She is an attractive young woman who knows her value in more worldly terms. She is outspoken and frank and swears like a sailor. The process of the two getting to know one another is both surprising and funny. You don't normally think of conversations with King including criticisms of his chain-smoking.

Onstage
'The Mountaintop'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
When: Through May 12
Info: $40 to $85; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

But then Hall's goal was not to reinforce the image many have of King as a perfect human being. He is shown talking about everyday events on the telephone with his daughter and wife; he asks the Rev. Ralph Abernathy to get him some Pall Mall cigarettes. On more than one occasion he says in an anguished tone of voice, "I am only a man!"

Wright smoothly reveals a man who bends the truth periodically, for instance when King tells his wife he's drinking tea to counteract a cold, when in fact he's swilling coffee and booze. At the same time, Wright represents King as a man of authority and seriousness of purpose, a man who is struggling to ignore the continual death threats against him.

In addition to being witty, smart and savvy, Camae is beautiful and King clearly notices her as a woman, but their dialogue, while flirtatious, remains just that. Kalukango plays Camae as everything King is not: a simple person who embraces her simplicity.

Clint Ramos' set is a reproduction of Room 306. Its compact size emphasizes the cramped, claustrophobic feeling that no doubt existed in that room.

The last portion of "The Mountaintop" transforms itself, becoming a blast of transcendental reality for King and Camae. That segment is followed by a rapid-fire historical tribute in music (sound design by Lindsay Jones) and visuals (projections by Jeff Sugg) depicting the post-King world. It is jarring, stunning and a fitting conclusion to a sensitive and moving play.

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