Written by Katori Hall; directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Through Feb. 24 at Center Stage
The first time I visited the Lorraine Motel, in 1981, it was a scary place. It was 13 years since Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot on the balcony outside the motel's Room 306, and the intervening years had not been kind to the building. What had been the top-of-the-line lodging for African-American celebrities in 1968's segregated Memphis had earned a reputation in 1981's integrated Memphis for prostitution, drugs, and decay. Plywood boards were nailed over a quarter of the windows, and the parking lot was full of broken glass. Inside Room 306, neighbors had cobbled together an amateurish memorial with typed index cards thumbtacked to the walls.
The second time I visited the Lorraine Motel, in 1998, the building had become the central section of the National Civil Rights Museum, an unquestionably safe, professionally curated, emotionally moving cathedral of history. Room 306 remained the same, but the surrounding exhibits provided a context for King's assassination that the earlier index cards couldn't possibly match. What the museum couldn't offer, however, was a connection to the desperate poverty that had brought King to Memphis in 1968 to support the local sanitation workers' strike. That connection had been inescapable on my first visit.
Katori Hall's play The Mountaintop takes place entirely in the Lorraine's Room 306 late on the night of April 3, 1968, and in the early-morning hours of the next day. Later that second day, King will be shot by James Earl Ray from a boardinghouse bathroom near his motel. In the meantime, however, King tries to unwind and recover his strength following a long speech at Memphis' Mason Temple, after many months of frustrated campaigns and controversy. He shakes the rain off his dark suit and calls to his right-hand man, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in the parking lot below to bring him some Pall Mall cigarettes. King (Shawn Hamilton) orders some coffee from room service, and it is delivered by a young woman named Camae in a pale-blue maid's uniform with a white apron.
Camae is Hall's creation, but she represents a connection to Memphis' very real African-American underclass that was so obvious in the 1981 version of the Lorraine Motel. As played by Myxolydia Tyler, Camae drinks whiskey like a fish, smokes Pall Malls like a chimney, flirts like a cat in heat, and swears "like a sailor with the clap," as she herself puts it. By contrast, actor Shawn Hamilton introduces King as the devout preacher with a Ph.D. from Boston University, a man worthy of the National Civil Rights Museum. The longer Camae hangs around in the room, though, the more King sheds his sophistication and begins to drink, smoke, and flirt just like her. "You're just a man, baby," Camae tells him. "You're not God."
King's documented history of womanizing lends the give-and-take between the educated, famous leader and this rough-edged, unschooled maid a sexual frisson that adds to their class, generational, and political differences. Tyler and Hamilton take full advantage of all those aspects-flirting, fighting, joking, and comforting with high style and energy. The relationship between Camae and King is so vibrant and persuasive that one is willing to forgive the play its flaws.
Even when he's making a joke or hitting on the younger woman, the wonderfully controlled Hamilton makes it clear that King's every line and gesture is the carefully crafted product of an intellectual writer who premeditates even his most emotional moments. Tyler makes it equally clear that the English language coming out of her mouth and the body language emanating from her wriggling hips are purely spontaneous-so much so that she repeatedly claps her hand over her lips when a cuss word slips out. It's not easy for an actress who has memorized an entire script's worth of lines to make them sound ad-libbed, but Tyler does just that.
The sharp contrasts between the only two characters in this one-set, 85-minute, intermission-less play not only engage us dramatically but also shed light on the inner dynamics of any marginalized community. Whether we are talking about African-Americans in the '60s, gay Americans in the '80s, or Latino-Americans in the '00s, there is always a tension between the community's polished, prepared public leaders and the unpolished, spontaneous masses those leaders purport to represent. To be effective, those leaders have to be different than their followers but not so different that they become unrepresentative. How much difference is too little or too much? That's what King and Camae are negotiating during their long night together.
For a while, the plot is driven by the question: Will they or won't they sleep together? After a while, though, Hall abandons that issue and her script diverts into a supernatural plot twist. I won't give away what that twist is, but I do need to say this: When one creates an otherworldly or alternate universe, that new world has to follow rules that are clear and internally consistent. In the best fantasies, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, those rules are lucid and logical. We know exactly what Frodo the Ringbearer and Clarence the Angel must do to succeed in their quests and exactly what powers they and their enemies possess. Hall never makes Camae's goals and abilities half as precise, and so her alternate world ultimately flounders.
What she does succeed at, however, is bringing together more and less refined representatives of an oppressed community on an isolated island where they have to engage one another. Thanks to the terrific performances of Hamilton and especially Tyler, that engagement is thrilling until the plot stumbles. For a long time, though, director Kwame Kwei-Armah is able to make us see the Lorraine Motels of 1968, 1981, and 1998, all at the same time.