We all know how the story ends. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. crusader of the civil rights movement, tireless advocate for social justice and racial equality through peaceful protest, inspiration to millions, was shot to death outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Those are the facts. But what may or may not have occurred on the night of April 3, Dr. King's last night on earth, is a matter of pure conjecture. That's the challenge taken up in The Mountaintop, the award-winning 2009 drama from Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall receiving its local premiere in an intriguing new Santa Cruz Actors' Theatre production at Center Stage.
A Columbia grad who received her MFA from Harvard, then graduated from the playwriting program at Julliard, Hall has the audacity to imagine King's final hours as a dialogue between the road-weary civil rights leader and a pretty young motel maid on her first day on the job.
Hall surprises the audience with a portrait of King that dares to be both laudatory and iconoclastic, viewing him as more human than saint, while celebrating his profound effect on the fight for freedom and justice for which he finally gave his life.
|Wills and Cruse: sassy and subversive|
The SCAT production, well-directed by local stage veteran Erik Gandolfi, begins with the civil rights leader returning to his motel room after delivering a speech to the striking sanitation workers he's come to town to support. King (played with energetic presence by Avondina Wills), eager to get to work on the next speech he's writing, has sent his roommate, Ralph Abernathy, out to the corner store to buy a pack of the Pall Malls he's trying to quit smoking.
When he calls room service for a cup of coffee, it's delivered by a starstruck young maid called Camae (sassy and ultimately commanding Sarah Cruse). As luck would have it, she has a couple of Pall Malls in her pocket; he persuades her to have a smoke with him, and they bring out the flirt in each other — even though she has to keep apologizing for swearing in front of a preacher whenever her salty street vocabulary slips out.
The stage seems to be set for debate along gender, class, and political lines. And for awhile, that's how it goes, especially when they discuss the violence of the Black Panthers vs. King's allegiance to peaceful protest. But there's a seismic shift when Camae's true nature and her purpose are suddenly revealed. It's too good a plot twist to give away here, but it gives Hall's play its slyly subversive edge as it ramps up toward its moving conclusion.