Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The MountaintopWestcoast Black Theatre Troupe
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Shakespeare in Love


Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha and Emerald Rose Sullivan
Photo by Vutti Photography
The second slot in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's season has been reserved for a non-musical play for the past five seasons, and this year they have chosen Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, which imagines the last night of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968. On April 4 he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. The setting is Room 306, the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee. That is the extent of actual history used in the play.

After failed attempts to get The Mountaintop produced in America, it premiered in London, first at a 65-seat theater and later transferring to the West End in 2009. September 2011 brought a high powered Broadway production with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Multiple regional productions have followed.

The Mountaintop is a two-character, 90-minute production. It seems unfocused for the first third, begins to gain momentum in the second third, and finally, potentially packs a wallop in the final 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the play's strong finale didn't land for me.

The two characters are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Camae, first presented as a room service waitress who later turns out to have an entirely different identity. Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha plays Dr. King, something of a career part for him, as he spent the last two winters playing the same character in both halves of Robert Schenkkan's plays about President Lyndon Johnson, All the Way and The Great Society at Asolo Rep. Though Mr. Murtadha does not have any physical resemblance to Dr. King, he is a strong presence, but still lacking the emotional power that I suspect the real man had, even in private, although part of that may be the script.

On the other hand, Emerald Rose Sullivan, after small roles in several WBTT productions in the past, explodes into stardom. In the early going, as a waitress, she is reserved with just a bit of street sass. When she drops curse words into her conversation, one senses an inability to control herself, and embarrassment at the same time. When she begins morphing into her alternate identity, her whole being changes, but gradually. Nothing in Ms. Sullivan's past performances suggested this level of talent. Brava!

When a play leaves me as cold as this one does, it is hard to decide whether the script or the director is at fault. I think Chuck Smith does a reasonable job directing and that most of the disconnect is with the metaphysical point of view in the script. Michael Newton-Brown's scenic design, that of a slightly seedy motel, circa 1960s, is excellent and authentic. Costuming by Adrienne Pitts and Patricia Gregory is minimal but appropriate, Lighting design by Michael Pasquini is inventive in the later parts of the play when quasi reality has retreated and imagery of God and the afterlife has taken over.

It is hard to properly assess this play, elements of which are an uncomfortable fit for my personal resonances. It has been powerfully received elsewhere and this seems to be a good production of it. I recommend that you decide for yourself if you connect with Katori Hall's vision.

The Mountaintop, by West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, through February 18, 2018, at 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota, Florida. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha*
Camae: Emerald Rose Sullivan*
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (understudy): Brian L Boyd
Camae (understudy): Ariel Blue
*= Member of Actors Equity Association

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