Two neighboring, highly respected theatre companies about an hour away from each other discover that they are planning on presenting the same play around the same time. Rather than competing, they make the judicious decision to jointly present The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s award-winning play that examines the final night of Martin Luther King’s life in an oppressively depressing room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill’s theatrical gem, is the first presenter at their lovely Paul Green Theatre through October 6th, and the show will then make the 50-mile trip west across I-40 to Triad Stage in Greensboro, beginning October 20th.

It is a relatively common artistic technique to use historical facts, figures, and personalities as the starting point for personal flights of fancy and fantasies, and playing the “what if” game. Sometimes it is done to merely dumb down history for mass appeal, but, like many of the movies of Oliver Stone, it can also be quite controversial because of the seamless melding of fact and fiction. The Mountaintop falls somewhere in the middle of this continuum as Hall’s play attempts to answer the question of what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the very early morning hours of April 4, 1968? What did he say? With whom did he speak? What were his final thoughts about his life and the work he was trying to do?

Before I proceed, I think it only fair that I put up a very big SPOILER ALERT! It would be impossible to write about The Mountaintop without divulging a development about halfway through the play that would totally ruin the first half for a first time viewer.

Like most of PlayMakers’ productions, one of the biggest stars is the set and scenic design. There are too many to list, but the principal designer, Junghyun Georgia Lee, created a frighteningly authentic realization of something we have probably all experienced: a bleak, cheap, dispiriting hotel room. The audience had time to stew in this distressing vision of where King spent his final hours even before the main character appeared. A well-designed balcony, depicting where King was shot, stood as ominously as a noose hanging from a tree.

Cedric Mays, a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, plays the central role of Martin Luther King, Jr. and we first meet him on the balcony yelling down at one of his aides to get him a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. If anyone expected to hear a sonorous, piercing voice like that of the real King, they were quickly disappointed. At this point, King was hoarse, tired, weary, smoking too much, and definitely not in preacher mode. Although Mays did a good job of depicting this, his low rumble sometimes made it difficult to hear his lines. In need of a cup of coffee, he called room service and successfully pleaded — at this late hour — to get some delivered to his room. Moments later, in walked Camae, a hotel maid who immediately recognized the special guest. Played with a wonderful blend of extreme self-confidence, innocence, and unabashed sexuality, Lakisha May, to this writer, carried the show and was the dominating presence.

I was not that impressed with the first half of this intermission-less production. It could have easily been mistaken for a sitcom, perhaps called The Preacher and the Sassy Maid. There was a great deal of light comic banter and sexual tension between these sole characters in the show. Much importance is placed on the fact that King is being depicted as a real person with faults, foibles, and failings, but I’m not sure why that should come as much of a surprise for even the most exalted persons. Camae soon proved to be much more than eye candy, but a formidable intellectual foil to some of King’s basic beliefs. In one memorable scene she put on his coat and shoes, stood on the bed, and gave a speech telling what she’d do to fight for equality for her people. It was antithetical to the non-violent Gandhi-inspired principles of civil disobedience that King espoused, but it was clear — or at least the playwright made it clear — that even King harbored doubts about this most famously cherished principle of his.

With the play’s profanity by both characters, King’s admitted infidelities, and scenes where he cowers in the bed from the thunder and lightning and is told by Camae that his “feet stink,” it is hard to tell what is or isn’t factual. The exalted figure that he is today barely comes across.

Then it all changes with one word: Michael.

During an argument, Camae calls him Michael, which is actually King’s given name, not Martin. He at first thinks she is a spy from another organization, but she is forced to admit she is there to take him “to the other side.” The story is now turned on its head and becomes an upside down It’s a Wonderful Life. King now clearly becomes an everyman who ponders his existence, questions his worth, and fights for his survival. There is some comic relief when Camae, actually an angel on her first day of work, talks with her boss, God, who is a black female. King grabs the phone and pleads for his life, or at least an opportunity to see the results of his life’s work, but she hangs up on him.

King is, however, granted a vision of what has happened over the next 45 years in a rapid-fire montage that serves as a synopsis of both the lows and highs of African-American accomplishments during that time. When that’s over, Camae takes his hand and they walk onto the balcony. The lights dim and a single shot is heard.

It is nearly impossible to portray the enormous depth and breadth of any person’s life, let alone one of the 20th century American icons. From a purely theatrical view, Triad Stage and PlayMakers’ The Mountaintop succeeds on every level and is a deeply moving experience. But, some can also legitimately say that a line was crossed and it cheapened and sullied the memory of a great man.

The Mountaintop continues at PlayMakers in Chapel Hill through October 6, after which the production will move to Triad Stage in Greensboro until November 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.