January 23, 2015
It is easy for tributes of Martin Luther King Jr. to get lost in the legend of the man. The globally identified image of King has the minister either at the head of a march or giving a speech for a rapturous crowd. However, the truth is that Dr. King existed between his great accomplishments. The Mountaintop, which played this week in the Barrett Lab Theatre, celebrates the man rather than the icon. It is elevated by powerhouse performances from Associate Professor of Theatre Mark Cryer and Kiana Sosa ’15.
The Moutaintop imagines Dr. King’s last night before his tragic murder, in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. A mysterious woman enters his life in his final hours under the pretense of a maid delivering his coffee. As the woman’s true intentions come to light, The Mountaintop twists away from its initial realism and becomes more of a spiritual parable in the vein of It’s A Wonderful Life.
As Camae, Sosa starts off portraying a cheeky, soft-voiced ingénue, but reveals more layers as the true nature of her character is exposed. She provides an excellent foil to Dr. King—she is exuberant when he is measured, composed when he is not. She can be seen as a representation of the various men and women who supported Martin Luther King’s dream, but were not afraid to question his large ambitions. The two characters challenge and sustain one another. A standout moment is when Sosa launches into a sermon for the audience of the world’s most famous minister, impressing him with her steely authority. Sosa also has the ability to collapse in moments of emotional fragility, for example in a tearful climax in which she marvels at Dr. King’s ability to embrace hate and turn it into love in his hands.
However, the lifeblood of the play is Martin Luther King Jr., captured in such vivid life by Mark Cryer. The King of The Mountaintop begins as a weary one. It is 1968 and the continuance of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a renewed focus on poverty, has drained Dr. King. The man’s burden can be seen in the way Cryer carries himself—as if he has just completed one of his famous marches. As the night continues, Cryer’s performance becomes an explosive one, for he gradually draws back Dr. King’s exhaustion to reveal the fire and fortitude that the minister never lost. Cryer gives a raw and impassioned performance as Martin Luther King Jr. is reduced to his bare humanity. As he realizes his ultimate mortality, all the confidence King is known for at the pulpit evaporates. He is now simply a man who worries for his wife and kids and wonders who will carry the proverbial baton of the Civil Rights Movement after he is gone.
For a play that proves ultimately emotionally devastating in its final stretch, The Mountaintop alleviates the descending darkness with light touches. A running joke is related to King’s wish to shave his famous mustache. In the more surrealist second half of the play, God is revealed to be a woman with a cell phone.
The play is enhanced by the attention to detail such as the hole in King’s sock. Costume and set design are both warmly colored in earthy brown and beige, giving the Lorraine Motel the appropriate feeling of home.
Bare Naked Theater’s presentation of The Mountaintop is a fitting tribute on the heels of the incredible and incendiary Best Picture contender Selma, which similarly preserves Dr. King’s legacy. Both The Mountaintop and Selma demonstrate how incredibly strong—and incredibly human—King was. Moreover, both the play and movie end with the same hymn: John Legend’s joyous and rousing “Glory.” The lyrics directly evoke Dr. King, speaking of a day when the glory comes saying, “it will be ours, it will be ours.” Martin Luther King’s vision has not yet come to pass, but both Selma and The Mountaintop prove that Dr. King’s message will continue to echo throughout history.