Stage

The Mountaintop theatre review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
It’s a rainy night on April 3 1968 and Martin Luther King Jr has just delivered what will be a hauntingly prophetic speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. He returns to his room at the Lorraine Hotel where, in less than 24 hours, he will be assassinated. He is 39 years old.
Something very special is taking place at the Fairfax Studio with this production under the inspired direction of Alkinos Tsilimidos. Written by the very gifted Katori Hall, The Mountaintop is a two-hander about an imagined meeting on the eve of Martin Luther King’s death.  The play is an interesting blend of philosophy and politics, and is both inspiring and very confronting. The Mountaintop has an unusual structure; the first half is an interpretation of what might have been going through King’s mind and heart, the second a non-linear crossover into spirituality.
Bert LaBonte (Clybourne Park, Rupert) is a natural in his lead role. Adopting a southern accent and humble demeanour, he plays the weary yet passionate King, triumphant from his latest humanitarian endeavour and in the prime of his professional life. After returning to the motel, he calls his family at home for a brief and loving conversation, then orders coffee from room service. A few minutes later, an attractive African-American maid dutifully arrives, with a cheeky smile and a warm manner on offer. Zahra Newman (Clybourne Park, The Cherry Orchard, Rockabye) is super sexy, her curvaceous figure virtually poured into her yellow maid’s uniform, and it seems that this appearance is going to be telling of her character. Camae is sassy – outspoken, confident and brimming with street smarts. King asks her to keep him company in his room for a while and at first the scene is set for one of his extra-marital rendezvous, but there is more afoot here than meets the eye. It’s Camae’s first day on the job, but she has a much larger agenda than delivering coffee. She’s about to deliver King the message of a lifetime. Newman inhabits multi-faceted character with ease as she taps into Camae’s vivacity.
The Mountaintop delves into King’s disrupted family life, it closely examines the social movement that King lead for the African-American people in the 1960s. It takes an in depth look at how it impacted upon history, right up until today. Katori Hall’s strong script makes comparisons to Malcolm X, Rodney King and even a thought provoking examination of OJ Simpson. The intriguing set and lighting design by Shaun Gurton and Matt Scott includes a montage of important historical moments projected over the Lorraine Motel-demonic smoke, and a frightening thunderstorm.
The epilogue when the house lights come up allowing LaBonte, as King, to leave the stage to wander among the audience and preach is more confrontational than effective. It is an awkward finale to what, until then, has been a taut and affecting production.
That’s what we thought. Read what the other critics say.
[box] The Mountaintop plays Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until 18 December. Tickets available via Melbourne Theatre Company. [/box]

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