'The Mountaintop' offers inspiring view of MLK at Arena Stage

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

April 4 is the official opening date of Arena Stage's next play, Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop." That's an important date in reference to the play, as it was on April 4, 1968, that Martin Luther King was assassinated. The play takes place the previous night in a motel room in Memphis, Tenn.

The drama's two characters are King (Bowman Wright) and a maid, Camae (Joaquina Kalukango). According to director Robert O'Hara, playwright Hall was not trying to write a biodrama in "The Mountaintop."

"She was writing an exploration of Dr. King," said O'Hara. "What she gives us is the heart of a man of greatness.

"I don't think Katori ever had an interest in being specific about the real man. No one knows exactly what happened that night and I think Katori set things up to allow herself not to answer those questions. She wrote a 'what-if' drama."

If you go
'The Mountaintop'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
» When: Through May 12
» Info: $55 to $100; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

Although Hall didn't try to write a biography of King, she does represent many of the facts that are known about him.

"King reflects on his life, he reflects on the March on Washington, he reflects on his own demons," said O'Hara. "King was a heavy smoker, you know. Katori opens the play with King asking someone for a pack of cigarettes. So instantly you know this is not going to be a love letter to an ideal human being, but that it's going to be the revelation of a man.

"The truth in the end is that King was not a magic person, he was not a saint. The truth is that he was simply a man who did great things. He had such a mythical quality even in his own lifetime, it's easy to assume he had special powers."

In order to stage "The Mountaintop" in this totally new production, O'Hara devised a set that emphasizes the enclosed nature of the motel room. "We have taken the small footprint of the hotel room and made the set no bigger than the hotel room was in real life," O'Hara said. "We wanted to show how the two characters interact with each other in a confined area."

O'Hara finds significance in the fact that the production is being done in Washington, D.C. "We've just inaugurated for a second time our first African-American president," said O'Hara. "King had big dreams but he probably never dreamed that would happen. Also we have the new monument to King. Once again, he probably never dreamed that would happen. This is a primary city where Dr. King's dreams are being made a reality, so it's important for 'The Mountaintop' to play here."

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Barbara Mackay

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner