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"The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall

Dr. King's Last Day on Earth

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Great theater can emerge from a simple yet evocative question: "What if?" Katori Hall, winner of the Blackburn Prize for outstanding women playwrights, asks the question: What did Martin Luther King Jr. do the night before he died? Who did he talk to? What did he say? Her play attempts to answer these questions, albeit in an imaginative rather than realistic way. The Mountaintop, took home England's Olivier Award for best play. In fall 2011, the play's poignant message resonated on Broadway, starring featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

About the Playwright:

Born in 1981, Katori Hall is a young, vibrant new voice in modern theater. Much of her work derives from her experiences in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. According to her official website, her major works include:

  • Hoodoo Love (Cherry Lane Theatre)
  • Remembrance (Women's Project)
  • Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
  • WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!
  • The Hope Well
  • Our Lady of Kibeho
  • Pussy Valley

Her most recent work (as of 2012) is Hurt Village; set in a housing project in Memphis it depicts a returning Iraq veteran's struggle "to find a position in his disintegrating community, along with a place in his daughter's wounded heart." (The Signature Theatre). However, Hall's most renowned work to date is the historical/spiritual drama, The Mountaintop.

The Plot:

The Mountaintop is a two person drama about the last day of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The entire play is set in the Lorraine hotel room, the evening before his assassination. King is alone, trying to create yet another powerful speech. When he orders a cup of coffee from room service, a mysterious woman arrives, bringing much more than a late-night beverage. What follows is a reflective, often funny, often touching conversation in which Dr. King examines his achievements, his failures, and his unfinished dreams.

Other Plays About Martin Luther King, Jr:

This is not the first time that a speculative drama has explored Dr. King's amazing legacy. The Meeting, by Jeff Stetson, explores the contrasting methods and the common dreams of two dignified civil rights leaders (Malcolm X and Dr. King) who sacrificed their lives fighting for justice.

Theme Analysis of "The Mountaintop":

SPOILER ALERT: It's not easy to analyze the messages of this play without revealing surprise elements of The Mountaintop. So, reader beware, I am about to ruin the big surprise in the play.

The mysterious woman who seems to be a hotel maid is named Camae (short for Carrie May -- which might be code for "carry me"). At first, she seems to be a perfectly normal (beautiful, outspoken) maid, who is in favor of social change, but not necessarily in favor of of all of Dr. King's methods. As a storytelling device, Camae allows the audience to witness a more personal and irreverent side of Dr. King, one that the cameras and public appearances rarely captured. Camae is also willing to debate with the reverend on social matters, strongly and eloquently expressing her own views on racism, poverty, and the slowly progressing civil rights movement.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Camae is not what she appears. She is not a maid. She is an angel, a recently created angel, in fact. Her first assignment is to inform Martin Luther King, Jr. that he is going to die very soon. Here the play shifts its focus. What begins as a behind-the-scenes look at one of America's greatest leaders (in all his frustration and frailty), ultimately becomes a struggle to accept one's mortality and prepare for a journey into what Hamlet calls "the undiscovered country."

As one might expect, King isn't happy to find out that he is going to die. In some ways, his dialogue is reminiscent to Everyman, the morality play from 15th century Europe. The key difference, however, is that Everyman represents an average person who has failed to live a saintly life. Dr. King doesn't profess to be a saint (in fact, both the angel and King mention his extra-marital affairs), but he does rightly argue that he has been fighting a just cause, and that he is the best person to continue the struggle for equality.

During the last half of the play, King experiences the different stages of coping with death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Arguably the best part of these stages is the bargaining portion when Dr. King actually gets to talk to God over the telephone.

If The Mountaintop sounds morbid, there's actually a lot of humor and whimsy throughout this play. Camae is a feisty and foul-mouthed angel, and she is proud to announce that her wings are her breasts and that God is a woman. The play concludes with not only acceptance, but joy and celebration for what has been accomplished, as well as a firm reminder of the dreams that have yet to come into fruition.

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