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Theater Review (Washington, DC): The Mountaintop by Katori Hall at Arena Stage

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“How can you preach against something you’ve never tried? Only sinners can be great preachers.” Playwright Katori Hall’s Olivier Award-winning drama The Mountaintop has come to Washington, DC’s Arena Stage. Set in Memphis, Tennessee, this story is the “unknown” tale of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night at The Lorraine Hotel. You would think this would be one bleak, depressing show, but it is surprisingly full of life.

The Mountaintop at Arena Stage
Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of The Mountaintop March 29-May 12, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.

As the audience files into the theater you see Martin Luther King (Bowman Wright, who played the role during a Houston production) silently pacing outside the front of a beautiful, faithful reproduction of the Lorraine Hotel. There is a very effective video waterfall playing in the background that goes towards further setting the mood. You can’t help but feel a sense of dread wash over you, as you know this night won’t end well.


Joaquina Kalukango as Camae in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of The Mountaintop March 29-May 12, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The standout performance of the year comes in the form of the fiery, cussing, beer-swilling, chain-smoking maid Camae, played by Drama Desk-nominated Joaquina Kalukango. To paraphrase my mother, she brings the “evil” out in King. King is lonely, in walks this spitfire and the sparks start flying. At times it does feel a little too much like a ’60s sitcom but material like this needs the levity.

Set and Costume Designer Clint Ramos does a great job of recreating the infamous hotel room. The front façade and the interior of the room look almost exactly as you would imagine they would. The costume design is very simple, with MLK wearing a single suit that looks like he’s been in it all day, and Camae’s simple blue maid’s uniform.


(L-R) Joaquina Kalukango as Camae and Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of The Mountaintop March 29-May 12, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.

There are a couple of memorable moments in this show. One is when King is having trouble with his speech and asks Camae for advice. She tells King that he needs to be more like Malcolm X. She stands up on the bed and proceeds to give a riproaring, hysterically funny speech that combines MLK with Malcolm X and a punch line of “F the white man.” This is where I tell you that this is not for kids. There is very strong language in this production.

The show takes a weird twist in the middle that changes the entire tenor, but luckily the tone doesn’t change. It still manages to successfully walk the fine lines between drama, preachiness and comedy. One could almost imagine that someone like King had to walk this balance every day of his life.


(L-R) Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of The Mountaintop March 29-May 12, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Not to give too much away but you really have to see the powerful end of this show. It ends on a really hopeful note, where the play literally has a “go to church” moment where the crowd starts screaming out “Amen!”

For all of my trepidation at seeing this story told, Director Robert O’Hara (who won an NAACP Best Director Award in 2010) does an amazing job telling it. It is absolutely brilliant how he uses this small hotel room to tell such a big story. Hall somehow managed to create a story that is both uplifting and at times gutbustingly funny as we really get a full picture of who this man probably was.

About Michelle Alexandria