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‘The Mountaintop’ Drops the Reverence for the Reverend

Dialing up the Almighty in Memphis with Theatre Charlotte

Justin Peoples reads passionately from the Bible alone in his hotel room as Martin Luther King Jr. in 'The Mountaintop.' (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)
Justin Peoples as Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘The Mountaintop.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

A stage with a particularly authentic — or imaginative — set design is a good start for a director who wishes to immerse you in the world of a play. Yet few productions surround you with the theatre experience, making you feel outside of your own world and inside theirs.

Sleep No More was dedicated to achieving this mission with a Macbeth makeover at a spooky hotel in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, where I saw it in 2015. So was Then She Fell the following night in Brooklyn, where I was plunged into the imagination (and mental illness) of Lewis Carroll.

In Charlotte, such efforts have been comparatively infrequent, but not unknown: Chickspeare’s Fefu and Her Friends on Cullman Avenue in 2001, numerous “environmental” productions by Carolina Actor’s Studio Theatre (CAST) in their days on Clement Avenue, and Matt Cosper’s legendary Bohemian Grove of 2014 that was staged god-knows-where — you had to agree to be kidnapped in a van by The Machine at the Actor’s Theatre parking lot to attend.

They do make an impression, these hyper-immersive presentations.

Cut to the legendary Queens Road Barn for the latest Queen City experiment in environmental staging. Yes, that’s Theatre Charlotte — in Myers Park! — on the cutting edge with its new production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which runs through Feb. 25

Directed by the ageless Corlis Hayes and designed by Chris Timmons (with a nine-person “Lobby Transformation” team) this is the first fully staged drama my wife Sue and I have seen in the 501 Queens Road lobby since the spare and forlorn Waiting for GODot in 2007.

Together with invaluable help from David Gallo, set designer for the 2011 Broadway production, and props designer Brodie Jasch from Fayetteville’s Theatre Squared, Dr. Hayes and her production team aim to take us back to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. returns from the Mason Temple, where he has just delivered his eerily prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

Every detail of the last room occupied by MLK has been replicated with meticulous authenticity — night tables and their contents, lamps, the chair and its fabric next to the window, the window curtains, the bed coverings, all the way down to the upside-down zero on the door of Room 306. 

The set of ‘The Mountain Top’ in the Quens Road barn’s lobby. (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

With walls within walls, you must enter through this door to get your first view of the new theatre space in the lobby created for this production. Only the ceiling remains unaltered, with its fans and extinguished holiday lights. Explanations are appended in the digital program for those details that couldn’t be ascertained and those that would have conflicted with Hall’s script.

Since there is no intermission and all the usual concession outposts have been whisked away, they have thoughtfully made “room service” available to ticket holders via a QR code. In more ways than one, we are treated like kings at The Lorraine. Fun fact: The fateful motel was actually named after the hit 1928 song “Sweet Lorraine,” popularized by jazz artists Teddy Wilson and Nat “King” Cole.

For all of Dr. Hayes’s reverent devotion to getting the look and feel of The Lorraine recreated as faithfully as she can, we soon see that it isn’t a shrine. Hayes is equally bent on getting to the heart of Hall’s pointedly irreverent drama. Hall provides ample time for solemnity and anguish at the end, but until then, she wants us to see the soon-to-be-martyred icon as a man, not a god, and not even as a holy man. The real Martin — or as God likes to call him, Michael — had his foibles, vices, and infidelities.

Justin Peoples as Martin Luther King Jr. (left) and LeShea Stukes as Camae in ‘The Mountaintop.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

And notwithstanding the resounding valedictory declarations of the Memphis speech we’ve heard over and over — “So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man” — Hall insists on reminding us that King did have worries and fears.

All obeisance to King’s saintly aura is swiftly discarded almost as soon as we see Justin Peoples taking on the role, before he walks through the audience to take a pee. Not only is he unkempt after his oratorical exertions and his walk through the rain, he has largely dropped his dignified public persona, at ease if not quite relaxed. 

Though he diligently examines his room’s rotary phone to make sure it isn’t bugged, we can hear that he has switched from formal to casual mode as soon as he speaks. It’s with an unmistakably Southern accent. Immediately disarming. 

Justin Peoples as Martin Luther King Jr. laughs on the phone in the background while Camae in a maid outfit tends to her work in the foreground in 'The Mountaintop.' (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)
Justin Peoples as Martin Luther King Jr. (right) and LeShea Stukes as Camae in ‘The Mountaintop.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Neither the touring production by the famed Penumbra Theatre of Minneapolis that ran at Booth Playhouse in 2014 nor the homegrown Actor’s Theatre run of 2018 at Queens University, directed by April Jones, had quite the same spontaneous or undignified impact. The smallness of the lobby space at the Queens Road Barn certainly helps in establishing a closer intimacy with King and a sharper look at his vulnerabilities.

Maybe that folksy drawl would have been even more impactful if Peoples had held back on it until MLK had dialed room service after normal closing hours. The arrival of LeShea Stukes as the fetching Camae, a housemaid moonlighting as King’s waitress, would have been a good moment for Peoples to turn on the Southern charm. But for those of us who have seen The Mountaintop before, Stukes brings with her more than Camae’s sensual allure, more than her extra Pall Malls to satisfy King’s chain-smoking, and more than her working-class sass.

She now gives us solemn glances from behind King’s back, fully aware of the gravity of her true mission before she discloses it, morphing from pursued damsel to admonishing paramour to chum to messenger of God. None of these fresh wrinkles quite accounts for the marvelous voodoo or the juju that Hayes, Peoples and Stukes have conjured up in creating the playful, poignant and profound chemistry of this Camae and MLK.

Lighting designer Jennifer O’Kelly gently signals those moments when Camae might be contemplating why she’s there, foreshadowing the AV extravaganza that will accompany Stukes’ final mountaintop revelations. She will almost be speaking in tongues when we reach this visionary summit.

Justin Peoples as Martin Luther King Jr. (right) and LeShea Stukes as Camae in ‘The Mountaintop.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

There’s little theology here, for when King dials up the Almighty, pleading his case for more time on this turbulent planet, she hangs up on him. Yet there just may be some deep dialectic in Hall’s scheme that narrows the gap that we might feel between God’s biblical judgment upon Moses at Mount Nebo and the judgment upon Martin in Memphis.

Read more: Photo of MLK in Charlotte Highlights Three Generations of Local History

Moses was given a precise catalog of his greatest sins. Maybe in an afterlife he learned not to shatter any holy tablets or assault a boulder without God’s approval. But what was the great sin that deprived MLK of the Promised Land that awaited his people? The answer never comes explicitly in the play, but King’s sins — though relatively petty until we consider possible adultery — are graven in its marrow.

In an age when not a day goes by without yielding fresh images, outrages and crimes committed by a lying orange buffoon and his acolytes, we might find ourselves shocked to be shoved toward such traditional moral moorings. Some of these values were written long ago in our marrow. Leading a people may still require adhering to a higher standard in God’s job description, not flouting the laws and proprieties that apply to everyone else.

Peoples and Stukes, with plenty of finely judged assistance, have found a way to make The Mountaintop more poignant, relatable, and human. Hall’s work becomes more touching, meaningful, and necessary each time I see it.

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