The Justice Theater Project’s The Mountaintop may surprise playgoers expecting to celebrate a glowing life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this Black History Month. While playwright Katori Hall titles her play The Mountaintop in homage to that famous last speech, she portrays Dr. King in a true valley of fear and doubt. The play is a one-act glimpse into the Lorraine Motel the night before Dr. King’s assassination. The lights go up as Dr. King returns to his motel room from just having delivered his speech in support of Memphis sanitation workers. Aptly appointed by set designer Deb Royals, the room is unembellished – dingy walls, the bed unmade – the first indication that this will be no mountaintop experience with the righteous and peaceful Dr. King. As King shouts to his unseen assistant for a pack of Pall Malls and then visits the open adjoining restroom (with humorous input from sound designer Tom Wolf), suspicions are confirmed.

Fortunately, Jade Arnold, in his directorial debut, prepared the audience in a humble and familiar welcoming address. In the spirit of The Justice Theater Project’s season, entitled “Voices that Challenge,” The Mountaintop highlights the voice of Dr. King – one of the most challenging voices of his time – as well as presents a challenging voice of its own. Arnold called the audience to consider Dr. King as an ordinary, flawed man called to greatness. The Mountaintop removes Dr. King’s civil rights pedestal and gives audiences a glimpse into a moment of humanity and vulnerability that audiences will relate to just as much now in 2015 as they might have in 1968. 

Phillip Bernard Smith plays Dr. King’s reputation as a womanizer when the play’s second character makes her entrance. Camae, played by the saucy and energetic Lakeisha Coffey, is intelligent and flirtatious with the mouth of a sailor. A maid at the Lorraine Motel, she arrives to deliver Dr. King’s coffee, although audiences soon find that Camae is more than she seems. In the 85 minutes that ensue, Dr. King and Camae address the danger Black Americans of the South faced in 1968. Smith conveyed King’s humanity in responding to danger and grappling with the idea of his mortality in the face of multiple death threats. He is conflicted: a family man with love for his wife and small children; a political activist carrying the baton of a civil rights movement, the likes of which the nation had never known; a religious man responding to a spiritual calling to speak a message of peace during a time rife with violence; and, the crux of Mountaintop, a man of flesh and bone bound to pass the baton when his time is up. 

In 2015, as America sees its first black president and must yet continue to combat crimes of racism still oppressing its people, the events of Hall’s script are eerily relevant. Subtle textual references and a less-than-subtle multi-media presentation elicit comparisons between King’s society and our own. At its heart, The Mountaintop challenges audiences to see how far we’ve come and how very much farther we must go. Smith’s characterization of the play’s final moments provided an opportunity for audiences to hear the goodbye Dr. King never got to say while Ms. Coffey’s Camae voiced the heartfelt, albeit imperfect, thanks we want to give. The Justice Theater Project calls audiences to relate the plight of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement to the plight of poverty and prejudice of all kinds in America today, challenging viewers to carry King’s baton as indeed the baton passes on.

The Mountaintop continues through Sunday, February 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.