Theatre: In Search of Martin Luther King Jr.,

January 13, 2024
2 mins read


By Shaun Ajamu Hutchison

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.,’s final speech before his death was delivered on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking sanitation workers. It was not a natural constituency. His fame arose from leadership of the Civil Rights Movement – embodied in struggles for equality, to break Jim Crow segregation, and achieve equal voting rights.

The movement he inspired had by now evolved into its more militant phase – demanding rather than begging – and reflected by a fiery Black Power ideology and armed militancy of the Black Panther Party.

By the late 1960s his new direction – demands for economic equality and opposition to the Vietnam War – was receiving a tepid, if not, hostile establishment response. His reputation tested, and his role as leader of the movement questioned. Into this cauldron the Nobel laureate’s confidence was shaken, his legacy threatened and facing harsh criticism.

Katori Hall’s enthralling London debut doesn’t shy from these heavyweight subjects – peppering her 80-minute piece with the idea of Obama as heir to Rev King. Even The Mountaintop publicity reprises the now famous 2008 Presidential election campaign shot – with the martyred Civil Rights Leader’s image transposed with that of the 44th president.

It’s an intriguing theory. But the 1960s icon she introduces us to – in an inspired and focused portrayal by Babyfather star David Harewood – is very different from the USA’s assured, media produced politician and first African-American Commander-in-Chief.

A Memphis native herself, Katori Hall’s portrait is neither cruel, nor unflattering, but it does not stray far from the orthodoxy. Despite hinting at MLK’s nuanced and profound political thinking, these traits are overshadowed by an emphasis on his personal foibles.

Capturing the inflections and cadence of the famed orator’s speech just right, Harewood plays the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate as a tortured and tense figure – even late-night thunder and lightning has him jumping out of his skin.

This is the MLK we meet in room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, more famously known by the balcony from which the martyred leader was photographed before his death by assassin’s bullet. In Theatre503s, compact space Libby Watson’s set hints at a man whose surroundings – sparse, dingy, and cramped – don’t match his significance.

When mysterious hotel maid Camae [Lorraine Burroughs – Casualty, Fabulation] arrives, the Preacher’s womanising and infidelity are revealed. Burroughs’ exuberant, livewire performance is spot-on, teasing MLK’s repressed personality out from under the heavy armour of leadership.

Ms Hall’s precisely researched portrait gives the civil rights leader a grassroots persona –  a flirtatious smoker with foot odour and holes in his socks, who uses profanity and the ‘n’ word’.

Director James Dacre has created a seamless series of imagined conversations thrashing out the philosophical limits of the Civil Rights Movement, and Dr King Jr.,’s leadership of it.  In one uninterrupted scene, as well as portraying the humane side of a man grown tense, tired, and irritable by a decade of leadership, harassment and intimidation by America’s Secret Service, issues relevant then and now are explored. Militancy or non-violence, racism and white supremacy, American imperialism – the implicit message is that King’s – then unanswered – four decades old uncertainties have been resolved by Obama’s ascension.

Despite some weaknesses such as the clumsy transitions between scenes and the confusion over the role of Camae, this is still an excellent production.  The Mountaintop is an imaginative portrayal of one of the most influential figures in history, whose dream of equality still resonate with us today.

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