Cadence Theatre Company welcomed the difficult task of re-imagining a legend and shaking the familiar in staging Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” — a poignant twist on the night before Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.
The show flirts with deconstructing all we know to be true of the great civil rights leader when the script throws a cigarette in King’s mouth and a splash of whiskey in his coffee and shines a new light on the life of a man doing a demigod’s work.
“My first thought after reading the script was ‘This is a perfect show for Cadence to do,’ as it’s so relevant to what is happening in the world right now,” said director Laine Satterfield.
“The Mountaintop” is set in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as King prepares his speech for the next day on why America is going to hell. King is waiting on his friend and associate, Ralph Abernathy, to return with his Pall Mall cigarettes.
After calling room service for some coffee, King is greeted by the beautiful, brazen motel, Camae, who has an unsettling secret that will alter King’s life forever.
For the rest of the show, King and Camae engage in a conversation that blurs the lines of blatantly honest, playful, passionate, crass, sometimes hostile and downright unnerving.
Throughout their dialogue, the duo uncover secrets about each other that shock their characters almost as much as the audience; King is, for once, not the most extraordinary person in the room.
Lead actor Jerold Solomon wears King’s suit and carries it well. Solomon dismantles the statue and morphs King’s persona into a real human — humorously switching on his “Dr. King” voice each time he answers the phone, just in case the person on the other end can’t fathom the Reverend’s real voice.
“Jerold and I both knew that we weren’t going after an ‘impersonation’ with the character of Dr. King,” Satterfield said. “We were clear from the beginning that (Jerold) needed to find a ‘third’ voice. Not something from interviews or the pulpit, but a voice that echoes the icon and humanizes him in the everyday world.”
Katrinah Carol Lewis is also exceptional as Camae. Lewis takes a soulful character that could easily be mishandled and mistaken for a caricature of the “poor southern black maid” and deftly navigates the complex, multi-faceted role.
Even before the secret of Camae’s presence is revealed, Lewis offsets her character’s brassy nature with a quiet but distinct cleverness.
In the small, intimate space of the Theatre Gym, filling a stage with just two actors for the hour and 40 minute show could have easily posed problems.
Instead, Satterfield’s actors takes the space and turns it into a ballroom, moving across the set in almost rhythmic changes of pace without straying from their tempo.
While the actors’ stage movement is constant, it is always purposeful and takes the audience from one end of the stage to the other keeping time with each twist of the story.
The motel room designed by Rich Mason is modest, but maintains historic authenticity. Mason’s lighting choices transition with every change in staging and buckle in the plot line, guiding the audience’s eyes when necessary, but leaving a soft-lit space for exploration when appropriate.
Sarah Grady’s costuming is also innately detail-oriented, and her artistic choices point to one of the first discoveries in the play of King’s imperfections — holes in his socks.
“The Mountaintop” is not just a new take on an already well-known person, but offers a new understanding that one person cannot carry the burden of change alone, that humanizing a hero does not mean tainting their name and that each generation may have a hero that serves as their voice for imminent change.
“I think playwright Katori Hall says it best with the quote ‘It was important to see the humanity in this hero so we can see the hero in ourselves,’” Satterfield said. “The importance is in passing the baton, so that we can be the positive change we wish to see, letting peace and love reign over prejudice and hate.”
The Mountaintop by Katori Hall runs until March 12 at Virginia Repertory’s TheatreGym.
Danielle Brown, Contributing Writer