Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
March 15, 2013
April 3, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has just delivered his magnificent, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The next day, the Nobel Peace Prize winner will be dead, gunned down at age 39.
Katori Hall’s play, “The Mountaintop,” is set on that night before, in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. King is hoarse and exhausted, disappointed in the turnout for his rally supporting the sanitation workers’ strike. We’re made privy to his private thoughts – and a whole lot more: the brand of cigarette he craves, his weakness for women, his willingness to curse if encouraged, his ease in lying to his wife, his “ stanky feet.”
The play takes a mountainous man and cuts him down to human size. The conceit is interesting; the way Hall frames her portrait is imaginative. And yet, we don’t get deep into King’s psyche or soul, or learn anything especially insightful about him. In some ways, this feminist take is more about the female foil for King than the man himself.
Camae is, admittedly, a delectable invention: A sassy, sexy maid who comes up to bring King some coffee, and adds a little kick to his drink and his evening. She melds a downhome innocence with worldly-wise pronouncements, and a killer imitation of the Great Man, delivering the kind of wildly radical speech she wishes he’d make.
Of course, Camae isn’t what she seems. To tell much more would ruin the delightful reveal of the play. But the talented playwright gives it away too soon, and then, she takes the fantasy too far, into the realm of absurdity, even silliness. Too bad, because I was really loving what she was up to for a while.
Still, it’s well worth revisiting the good Doctor, and watching, along with King, a verbal and visual catalogue of what’s to come in the battle for civil and human rights for which he gave his life. The important point: passing the baton.
In the West coast premiere of the play, the San Diego Repertory Theatre production is enigmatic. What should be a seedy downtown roadhouse has become a slick, silvery bullet with an all-white interior. Under the detailed direction of Roger Guenveur Smith, much of the action is pantomimed, to varying effect.
Danielle Moné Truitt is gorgeously irresistible as Camae , with a palpable connection to Larry Bates, as a distraught, amused, aroused Dr. King.
Now, here comes another larger-than-life character with big dreams – Mama Rose, the center of the marvelous Jule Styne /Stephen Sondheim musical, “Gypsy.” The J*Company’s terrific production is anchored by two superb performances: Lindsey Grant as that monstrous stage mom, and Mara Jacobs, who morphs magnificently from ugly-duckling daughter to superstar stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
Dramatic fantasy or musical fable: performers hit the heights.
“Gypsy” runs through March 17 at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla.
“The Mountaintop” continues through March 31 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
©2013 PAT LAUNER