It’s almost surreal to watch the Dallas Theater Center’s stunning production of The Mountaintop, directed by Akin Babatunde, knowing that it is cohabiting the Wyly Theater with Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical. While Moonshine fumbles superficially through a trite (and white) storyline where both stupidity and stereotypes are celebrated, The Mountaintop elegantly explores the intersection of fear, faith, and the fantastic, set against a backdrop of events that feels at once both historic and chillingly immediate.
It is April 3, 1968, the evening that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an almost prophetic speech from the pulpit of the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. King and his men planned to march peacefully the next day in hopes that the court would overturn an injunction blocking protests for the rights of striking sanitation workers.
On its face, Katori Hall’s 2010 Olivier Award-winning play is a magical realism-tinged look at what weighed heavily on King’s mind on what was to be the last night of his life. He struggles with his speech for the next day while he paces his room at the Lorraine Motel like a jail cell, waiting for his cousin to return with a pack of Pall Malls, a vice in which he willingly indulges to calm his jittery nerves.
When Hassan El-Amin takes the stage, suit coat removed, tie loosened, coffee cups and ashtrays scattered, it’s clear this version of King is stripped of any varnish. He is tired, he is frightened, and he spends enough time away from his family that some evenings he finds himself drawn in by the embrace of things he is not supposed to want—like a cigarette with a vulgar-tongued, angel-faced young woman named Camae (Tiana Kaye Johnson), who serves up King’s room service coffee with a side of temptation.
As the evening grows longer, and their conversation takes turn after turn, cigarette after cigarette, lines begin to blur—between King and Camae, past and present, possible and impossible. By the time the stage dimmed on opening night, more than one audience member was visibly touched by the emotion and the power of King’s legacy and Hall’s message.
El-Amin’s portayal of King is layered and strong, taking gentle command of a challenging role that could easily overwhelm an actor. It is as easy to believe the conviction in his ringing words as it is the defeat in his stance when he recalls the death of a young man at a riot the week before. He doesn’t shy away from portraying the civil rights icon as a man, not a legend, with all his foibles on full display.
Johnson is simply fantastic as the mysterious maid Camae, switching effortlessly from starry-eyed youth to knowing coquette to caring confidante in the span of a breath. If El-Amin is the solid foundation of the production, Johnson, like Camae, is the essential energy that propels the story forward to the inevitable conclusion. It’s the journey she takes you on along the way that will surprise you. This SMU student is one actress to watch.
Lighting by Alan C. Edwards, sound by David Lanza, and projection design by Chase York create an atmospheric experience that immerses the audience before the curtain even goes up. Scenic designer Bob Lavallee’s note-perfect model of King’s room has a few unexpected and brilliant touches that go best unspoiled. Claudia Stephens’ costumes are period-accurate with little, deliberate choices that speak to careful thought and allow special effects to be pulled off seamlessly.
Good theater makes you think, makes you feel, and leaves you a little bit changed on the other side of the performance. The Mountaintop does all three, underscoring King’s message of hope for the future with a reminder that we are all a part of something bigger, especially when the overtones of 1968 don’t feel quite so far away.