Bare Naked Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, Katori Hall, Kiana Sosa, Mark M Cryer, Martin Luther King Jr, Nigel Farage, Racism, The African-American Civil Rights Movement, The Mountaintop, Theatre Review, Venue 13
This production of “The Mountaintop,” which is currently established at Venue 13 in the Canongate, provides us with access to the celebrated play by Katori Hall. After premiering in London in 2009, “The Mountaintop” won an Olivier Award and it went off to Broadway with Samuel L Jackson as the lead. It has now percolated down to the Fringe courtesy of Bare Naked Theatre, which hails from Hamilton College in New York. Martin M Cryer is playing the subject of this story, the Georgian Baptist minister and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
But wait, there must have been a mistake! King is talking about smoking as soon as he is on stage and wishing bitterly that he had a pack of Pall Malls to hand. He is unglamorous and middle-aged; he wears braces and his voice is hoarse from shouting so much. He is obviously a bit of a fuddy-duddy. All that we need is for him to mention “Brussels bureaucrats” and we will have the very picture of Nigel Farage in front of us.
Maybe I have taken a wrong turning and got the wrong door. But no, King is telling us about Memphis’ sanitation workers, something which is unlikely to ever be a priority for Farage. Still, if the star of “UKIP! The Musical” wants an afternoon off, I’m sure that this Martin Luther King could fill in quite adequately.
We join King in 1968, on the night before he was shot dead outside his Memphis motel room. “The Mountaintop” is a satisfying play because it initially makes us uneasy, in seeming to shake the great man’s pedestal too viciously, before it then relaxes, and it is then finally off having its own little party. First, however, King appears to be a figure of such tactical ineptitude that it is startling that he is really fronting the Civil Rights movement. A chambermaid named Camae (Kiana Sosa) has visited his motel room to deliver some coffee and they are soon drinking and smoking together with dangerous abandon. The Feds will have this place bugged up to the rafters and King is evidently conscious of such a prospect, since he is shown before the maid arrives dismantling his phone to look for a mic. How could he be so stupid and selfish as to jeopardise his people’s struggle with a sleaze scandal?
Yet there is actually a murmur of fact within this scenario. The 1989 memoirs of Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s right-hand men, claim that King was embroiled in an extramarital liaison with an unidentified woman on the night before he died. Abernathy was condemned en masse by his old Civil Rights comrades for authoring a “slander.” The oddity of “The Mountaintop” is the way in which it balances itself on the fence with this issue. The play refutes the idea of King’s infidelity on entirely absurdist grounds whilst it still makes the infidelity to seem not implausible.
And then we are off into a rhapsody of amiable nonsense. The surrealism is at times exhilarating and it at times drives the play ever remoter from the sober realities of racial injustice. It is all rather like one of Salvador Dali’s bombastic renderings of Christ or Saint Anthony: images which are admirable enough though the very opposite of profound. Yet Cryer’s portrayal of a subtly overwrought King manages to walk the play a couple of steps back to solid ground. The chambermaid might just be a spy and one of the various substances that she feeds King might contain LSD. If I recall correctly, the CIA had once schemed to discredit Fidel Castro by poisoning him with LSD prior to a radio appearance.
Nonetheless “I have a hallucination that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…” does not have the same ring to it as the original.