Katori Hall‘s The Mountaintop, produced by the Little Theatre of Winston Salem, opened Friday night in the Mountcastle Forum at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts to shouts of “Amen!” from the appreciative audience.

This exceptional, intimate, funny, and inspiring show has only two more performances, and I heard murmurings from the audience members that they hope it will be produced at the coming International Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem in July-August. That’s a great idea, but don’t take a chance; see it tonight or Sunday if you possibly can.

Melanie Matthews has ably directed the two-person show to seem, at times, like a roomful of people. The rotary phone and the appropriately generic hotel room where Dr. King spent his last evening set the time perfectly in 1968. Scenic design is by This Robot Dreams, a name I’m seeing a lot lately.

Tony Browley brings so much to the role of Dr. King: the cadences of speech, the confidence, the charisma, and even the vulnerability. Browley has the ability to go from one emotion to the next like quicksilver, to be preternaturally still, and then powerfully kinetic.

Jazmin Mahoney has the beauty and the chops to play Camae, an imaginary character who comes to tell Dr. King about the fate that awaits him on the following day. Mahoney brings a delicious groundedness to Camae. She may be flirty, but she’s no pushover. While she clearly admires Dr. King, she’s not afraid to stand up to him, all the while feeding him the cigarettes that he so desperately craves.

The mostly beige hotel room is enlivened by Hall’s brilliant script that describes through dialogue exactly what Dr. King has been going through up to this point. He has received the Nobel Prize for Peace, survived an assassination attempt in 1958, inspired much of the U.S., enraged the other part, been called a Communist, and surveilled by the FBI.

He expresses his frustration at the disappointing results of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Sanitation Workers’ quest for equity: “We’re fighting for a living wage, and they give us nothing.”

On the day that the play takes place, a bomb threat has delayed his flight from Atlanta to Memphis. When we join him in his hotel room, he has delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech, and is tired and frazzled. Before making a call to room service for coffee, he frantically searches the phone for bugs (surveillance devices). Loud thunder, flashing lightning, and pouring rain further jangle his already frayed nerves.

He is worried about his friend who has gone out for cigarettes, and worried about the civil rights movement overall. And he is afraid. He’s been called Martin “Loser” King. He says he feels fear in his stomach, in his toes, in front of his own congregation. Finally, he says, fear has become his best friend. “If I’m still afraid, then I’m alive.”

So it’s a nice diversion for him when the lovely Camae arrives at his door, holding a newspaper over her head to protect her hairdo from the rain and bearing a carafe of coffee and cups – and the blessed cigarettes.

Their conversation starts lightly enough, but eventually takes a turn to the heart of the play: what awaits Dr. King on April 4, 1968. When he hears about his imminent demise, he launches into a ferocious argument for his life. He feels his work is not yet done, but Camae assures him that he has done enough, that he has earned a rest, and resistance, in this case, is futile.

He calls her an “incog-negro,” a spy, and says she can’t judge him, because she is a “cussin’, … fussin'” angel.

Worn down by Dr. King’s skillful rhetoric, Camae makes a phone call to God to help her convince Dr. King that what must be must be. I won’t tell you too much about that call, because the revelations around the character of God are some of the high points of the show. 

Finally, Dr. King promises that he will yield to God’s will if Camae will just give him a glimpse of the future, and she reads from a list some of the names of those people and events that will follow him, and that he will have effected. The stage lights (by This Robot Dreams again) change only slightly but perfectly to take us into a different dimension as Camae reads the names and places that inhabit the future.

This final, theatrical craft, and the luminous solemnity of the ending lines bring the show to its lovely and logical ending.

Many people think that Dr. King foretold his death in the speech he made on April 3. You decide.

This performance runs through Sunday, January 21. See our sidebar for details.