We have been on a roll of seeing “history” plays recently. Our third was The Mountaintop at Arena Stage. Henry VIII and Mary T. and Lizzy K. presents well known characters only a few generations back for their audiences. The Mountaintop is about Martin Luther King, Jr., someone who lived in my lifetime. Not only does this portray someone in recent memory, but someone for whom technology allows us to access in audio recordings of his speeches and conversations, and video images. Narrative accounts and photographic portrayals can be supplemented with sound and movement. How does a playwright bring something with much contemporary familiarity to the stage?
Katori Hall uses three theatrical styles to construct her story about the last night of King’s life. She begins with realism, even before the play starts. We enter the auditorium and take our seats. In full view is the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. King (Bowman Wright) stands at the door and paces along the rail smoking on a foggy night. He is evidently deep in thought while we settle in and read the program or chat with our guests. The only transition to the beginning of the play is when the house lights dim and King calls out to a friend to pick up cigarettes for him.
This realism continues as Craig Napoliello’s set revolves around to take us from the exterior of the motel room to the interior. Not only are the twin beds, end table, lamp, chair, curtains, etc. authentic to the 1960’s, but the walls are literally cut out, revealing pluming, support joists in the floor, and headers for doors into the bathroom. This is the first hint that symbolism will reveal what is behind the visible world of the motel room.
Yet, the realism continues as Camae (Joaquina Kalukango) brings room-service coffee to King’s room. She is a newly hired housekeeper, wearing a highly starched and ironed uniform, revealing both her duty and figure. She might have put the tray with the coffee down and left the room, but King asks her for a cigarette and conversation. He is weary from his meetings and speeches, but is also working on a new speech. Camae begins to straighten up the room, while King smokes the cigarette that she has given to him.
The limits of realism in theatre is that the characters must have motivation to stay on stage and exchanger their lines. There is only so much that King and Camae can discuss in their roles without going to places that are rumored of King: smoking, speeches, and womanizing. Katori shifts the style of the play to the supernatural here, using lighting affects to dramatize stormy weather, first rain, thunder and lightening, then snow. We are baffled. Did it really snow in Memphis in early April, the night before King’s death? Our minds are still in realism mode.
The next section of the play continues in this expressionistic realm. Camea informs King that she is a angle sent to bring him to heaven the next day. The focus turns from earthly comforts, such as smoking, calling his wife to talk, or flirting with Camae, to reviewing the work that King has done and left undone. Just has realism presented limitations in how much dialogue two characters can sustain, symbolic action runs out of turns without becoming over-ruminated or frenetic.
At the point at which we are ready for King to be assassinated, Katori shift again into the final poetic recitation. They step forward, the motel recedes into the dark of the back stage, the red curtain falls, and as Camae breaks into a poem-rap about passing on the baton of freedom, computer altered images illuminate the curtain. We see 45 years of people and events that have challenged and moved our nation.
Theatrical realism, expressionism, or poetry? Which form best suits the portrayal of a recent, historical figure? After the show, we exchanged our impressions, and re-wrote the script for what we considered better emphasis and transitions.
P. S. Readers. Though I did not plan to spend a couple of months exploring how we present history in fiction, this has been an interesting run from the Tudor era (Henry VIII), the American pre-revolution colonies (Sparrowhawk), to the Civil War ear (Mary T. and Lizzy K, and Behind the Scenes), to the Civil Rights era (Mountaintop). Thanks for reading.