THEATRE REVIEW: The Mountaintop

Photos by Rob McColl

It’s after midnight on Martin Luther King’s last night on earth. There’s still work to be done — but the good doctor has run out of cigarettes.

Dr King (Pacharo Mzembe) has just given his famous and final address at Mason Temple in Tennessee — in April of 1968. We find him kicking off his shoes in his Memphis motel room, calling room service in the hope of a late-night cup of coffee.

Delivering caffeine and cigarettes to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was not what Camae (Candy Bowers) expected of her first day on the job as a motel maid. Lonely and, after all, only human, King insists Camae stay for a cigarette. He gets far more than he bargained for.

Candy Bowers as Camae and Pacharo Mzembe as Dr Martin Luther King in QTC's The Mountaintop  shot by Rob Mccoll

In his director’s notes, Todd MacDonald quotes writer Katori Hall: “This isn’t the ‘I Have a Dream’ King. This is King, the man, not the myth. I want people to see that this extraordinary man — who is actually quite ordinary — achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we, as a people, interact with each other.” Mzembe, with his sonorous voice, perfects Hall’s vision of King-the-man. His ego, wit and flaws make King’s terror, in facing death, all the more moving.

The Mountaintop’s strength hangs on its dynamic leads’ playful intimacy. Bowers’ brass and sharpness keep the play on the right side of sweet as Camae’s true identity is revealed. The more fun Bowers has with her character — giving her own Dr-King-esque speech, for instance — the more she settles into her Tennessee twang.

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Kieran Swann’s design and Ben Hughes’ lighting combine to create a singular effect: Room 306, with its mildewed pink curtains, seems to exist between worlds. Swann subtly evokes both the wonder and terror of what lies beyond. Tony Brumpton’s sound design has us enter the theatre to the swell of King’s various addresses; in a sense, this will prepare us for the powerful sensory overload of the finale (composed by Busty Beatz).

Queensland Theatre Company is off on the right foot with its 2014 season. Ultimately, The Mountaintop celebrates King’s reverberations on Earth, but challenges us not to forget that we share his human ability to change the world.

Candy Bowers as Camae and Pacharo Mzembe as Dr Martin Luther King in QTC's The Mountaintop  shot by Rob Mccoll

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” says King, in his final address on 3 April 1968. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”

The Mountaintop (Queensland Theatre Company) runs at the Playhouse, QPAC, until 16 March 2014. Tickets $33–80.

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