The Mountaintop

by Dale Reynolds

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 10, 2016

Danielle Truitt and Larry Bates
Danielle Truitt and Larry Bates  

When history is recreated on the stage in a meaningful way, and we learn sides of a historical character about which we knew little or nothing, then most everyone can relax and enjoy the presentation. Such is the truth of Katori Hall's fine two-character show about the late Martin Luther King, Jr.(and here we learn that he was born Michael, but was re-christened ML when MLK, Sr. changed their names when the boy was five years of age), "The Mountaintop."

Under Roger Guenveur Smith's astute directions, actors Larry Bates as Dr. King, and Danielle Truitt as a maid (who is not what she claims to be) in the Lorraine Motel the night before the great civil rights leader's assassination, April 3, 1968, discover many truths about the lauded leader -- some of which he didn't want uncovered.

Less a gossip rag series of uncoverings, Hall's amusing drama highlights how we view our heroes, however uncomfortable the process, and thereby reflect on how they view themselves. This important figure was (now known to most, but not then) a womanizer, in the same vein as President John Kennedy.

Dr. King is under great tension due to the looming strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, making his need for nicotine fixes all the stronger. Camae, the maid, is helpful and sultry, leading the good man into some territory he shouldn't be visiting yet again, but... and this is where Hall's script takes off into some beautifully strange areas dealing with the Almighty (of whichever gender you prefer) and her/his dealing with Dr. K's fate.

The title, of course, references his last speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop." But she has written some extraordinary words for him, as all of us are not allowed to use his full speeches without paying for them.

In 90 minutes (no intermission to stop the forward thrust of her action), the actors square off, put passion to the test, showing off the inside mettle of this man and of his spiritual liberator.

Exciting is a lesser word for what we see up there: intriguing, shocking, funny and mournful are some equally inadequate words to describe the great value of her script and the powerful production director and actors deliver.

This critic was not aware of the two stars of the show. But Bates and Truitt are superb professionals, putting their all -- physical, emotional, intellectual -- into Halls' platform, making it a stunning evening of quality work, making Black History Month sit up, shout for mercy and roll over so "The Mountaintop" can scratch its tummy.

Adding to the above is John Iacovelli's surprisingly simple but useful set design: a bed, a chair, a lamp, a table, all in neutral beige tones that embraces and supports the non-stop action in front of it. The same way, Jose Lopez' lighting enhances and dramatizes what we see.

This is an important play that could easily play in repertory with EST's 2015 drama on the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, "Watching O.J." in that both plays deal with hero-worship in disarray.

Producer Joseph Stern is to be singled out for his perspicacity in finding this five-year-old play and giving it its L.A. debut. We are all in awe of his talents.

"The Mountaintop" runs through April 10 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, 90046. For tickets or information, call 323-852-1445 or visit www.matrixtheatre.com.