The Mountaintop play at Young Vic review: a searing, sexy, devastating imagining of Martin Luther King Jr's last night

Simon Thomson
400 - Bad Request | City A.M.

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The Mountaintop

Martin Luther King Jr is one of the towering figures of the 20th century. A champion of African-American culture and people, a religious leader, a community organiser, a crusader for civil rights, an exemplar of non-violent resistance, a model of masculinity, a moral touchstone, an icon, a martyr, a secular saint.

A play about his last night on earth might have been worthy, or spiritual, or contemplative, or important, and in its way The Mountaintop is all of these things, but this is no Gethsemane, no long dark night of the soul. It is a sexy screwball comedy, brimming with contemporary social and political relevance, which constantly surprises its audience. It is, quite simply, magnificent.

Respectful of the classical unities, all the action takes place in King’s suite at the Lorraine Motel (now The National Civil Rights Museum) in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination.

A two-hander, it focuses on the imagined meeting between King, tired from a day organising sanitation workers in a labour dispute with the city, and Camae, the maid who brings a cup of coffee to his room. A teasing attraction emerges between the two, and their conversation reveals the complicated character of King, and the more complicated difficulties he fought to overcome.

Gbolahan Obisesan is perfect as King; recognisable as the historical figure, but warm and human, with moral failings, smelly feet, and a dimpled smile. Ronke Adekoluejo somehow manages to be even better as Camae. Alternately coquettish and fiery, whether she is thoughtfully debating divinity or performing a pastiche sermon, her smallest actions are consonant and her timing is impeccable.

Memphis native Katori Hall’s gift for realistic dialogue makes the play an aural delight. Funny, flirtatious, powerful and profound, in the mouths of two talented actors every word rings true. Hall’s ambition and talent as a writer is confirmed as the play unexpectedly pivots into magical realism. The fantastical can be difficult to portray on stage, but here what at first seems a radical tonal shift is rapidly accommodated, and soon seems entirely natural.

The play’s title is, of course, a reference to the line in King’s final prophetic speech, delivered at the Mason Temple, the day before he was killed. In it he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop[.] 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.”

King and the audience are taken to the mountaintop, and given a glimpse of this Promised Land, as a crackling Adekoluejo – almost singing, almost dancing – lays out the next five decades of American history. Her delivery is percussive, the audience feeling the beats, with many left in tears.

The Clare is a tiny theatre, and physical closeness clearly encourages the audience to identify more closely with the characters, but the obvious practical drawback is that this means seats are extremely limited, and the run is short, so do whatever you need to do to ensure that you don’t miss out.

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