By Ruth Ferguson, NDG Editor
Each of us strongly believe we truly know Dr. Martin Luther King, but do we really? And if we knew more about the man, would our opinion of him change? Those questions are explored in the Dallas Theater Center’s production of The Mountaintop. This creates a unique experience for the viewer, because just how comfortable are we with a less mythically Dr. King?
While that is a fascinating element to the play, it is not even the best part. That honor goes to Tiana Kaye Johnson, a third year grad student at SMU. Her performance is mesmerizing as she owns the stage, commanding your attention. Although it may be hard to imagine someone overshadowing Dr. King, at times I found myself hanging a little closer on her words. The Prairie View A&M grad recently turned heads in DTC’s production of The Book Club Play. This follow-up performance shows her skill is no fluke. She is charming and sassy and her character’s always comes across as someone you just want to know better.
Playwright Katori Hall’s mother featured two portraits on her wall – Jesus and Dr. King according to Hassan El-Amin (Dr. Martin Luther King). Hall was determined to take Dr. King off the wall and make him less of a myth and more of human being, a task she achieves in spades in The Mountaintop. Everyone feels like they know Dr. King so it is quite a challenge to make the experience feel new. El-Amin, under the direction of Akin Babatunde, achieves this.
The play opens with Dr. King on the night before his murder in the motel room waiting for his friend and co-worker in the battle for civil rights, Ralph Abernathy to return with a pack of cigarettes. It is a stormy night in Memphis and with every clap of thunder Dr. King flinches hard. I mean really hard. It is the first signal that this not the fearless civil rights leader we all think we know so well. It is a flesh and blood man who perhaps has been to the mountaintop, but he is not quite ready to walk through the valley of death either.
That is just the first of many moments that make you feel a little uncomfortable, because you have to wrap your head around the idea of fear and Dr. King in the same room. Then in walks Camae (Johnson) bringing room service. As the sexual tension between them rise, you almost expect her to say, “coffee, tea or me?” If we are not ready to think of Dr. King as a cheater in our minds, we certainly don’t want to see it unfold in this small and very intimate Studio Theatre at the Dee and Charles Wyle Theatre. But again Johnson’s performance is captivating, and you find yourself wondering can he really resist?
And then the play goes in a totally different direction which the audience never sees coming and I am not going to remotely discuss to avoid spoiling it for you. This is a play that really leaves you walking away thinking about Dr. King in a different light – and yet it never disrespects his memory.
In an interview with the DTC, Hall discusses her love of re-telling true stories this way, “I’m often inspired by true stories, but I heavily fictionalize those truths to serve a deeper truth that only well-told lies can tell.”
There was no Camae for Dr. King to spend his last night on earth with, but The Mountaintop is a well-told lie that will challenge and entertain you. Guests may enjoy the show on stage at DTC until Nov. 15. Tickets are available for $18 – $102 at DallasTheaterCenter.org. But a NDG reader can win tickets for two to see The Mountaintop by entering via our Facebook page.