The program notes for the current production at the Central Square Theater note that in the last speech he gave, the day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., told his audience, "I’ve been to the mountaintop.... And I have seen the Promised Land!" Added King, "I may not get there with you..."
King, a preacher, versed in the Bible’s lore, would certainly have known the story of Moses, the leader who took his people into the desert in a long search for a "promised land" of milk and honey. Moses guided his people to that land, but didn’t live to enter it himself.
King sought similar gifts of freedom and self-determination for his people; America, land of opportunity, the nation predicated on a premise of equality, has always been the promised land. It’s a matter of America living up to its own vision. Dr. King was one in a long line of leaders who struggled to coax the country to fulfill its potential, and meet its obligations.
"The Mountaintop" is named for that privileged place of the visionary -- the vantage point from which the best possible future, and the path toward it, can be surveyed. Presumably, this is the mountaintop King referred to, with seeming prescience. But what if his words carried more significance? What if there was more than coincidence at work? Could King truly have caught more than a nebulous, abstract glimpse of the future?
Most likely, King was thinking more of the decades of struggle that lay ahead, the goal so far in the future that a man his age could not reasonably expect to live to see it accomplished. Moreover, King surely knew that his life was in danger as he continued his work and took his speeches into hostile territory. America had seen assassinations of leaders both black and white in recent years at the time of his last speech; he operated during dangerous times. Knowing his life could be forfeited, and pressing forward anyway, was an act of courage and faith on Dr. King’s part. If he saw his speeches as a form of testifying, then he must also have contemplated the notion that he might end up a martyr, and decided that the price would be worth it.
As King, Maurice Emmanuel Parent is engaging, convincing, and even playful. Katori Hall’s play imagines him staying up late the night before he was murdered, jumpy and agitated, waiting for a friend to bring him a pack of Pall Malls. When Camae (Kami Rushell Smith), a boisterous, foul-mouthed, hip flask-toting young woman brings King a cup of coffee from room service, her company proves a tonic for the weary, anxious King -- and Smith’s performance is a raucous, dazzling delight. Together, the actors create a special moment, the sort of moment worthy of celebratory recollection, even as rain, snow, and hellfire itself seem to rage just outside the door. It’s in just such moments that the future, however far off, seems within reach: Camae and King flirt, argue, and envision a time when African Americans can take their place as national leaders and, more importantly, walk down the street without apprehension.
Hall presents King as a man, which is a huge service to any legendary figure. His socks have holes from the long marches he’s led; he devours cigarettes insatiably; his room is littered with used coffee cups. We’re given King as a living person, not a glorious canon of ideals. He’s flirtatious and avuncular by turns toward Camae; he’s possessed of certainties and wracked by doubts; he’s a family man who has sacrificed too much family life for the good of the people who look to him to be their voice.
This is the play at its best, and it’s the bulk of this intense, intermission-free, 90-minute production. When the play departs from this humanistic, grounded tone -- becoming hazily fantastical and turning at one point into a sudden, rather puzzling, pillow fight -- it risks losing the thread. Hall has ambitions of transcending history, seeking perhaps to show us the monumental spiritual struggle and sustaining satisfactions that must drive a man like Dr. King in the face of all the obstacles he faced, and she chooses to do so in the most daring manner imaginable.
In the end, the author triumphs. In the case of this production, that’s largely due to the talent of the actors and director Megan Sandberg-Zakian. They grace this bold, bracing play with an honest and profound humanity. It’s to plays like this that we applaud on our feet... and bow our heads.
"The Mountaintop" continues through Feb. 3 at the Central Square Theater, located at 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Tickets $15 - $50. Performance schedule: Thursday evenings at 7:30; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00; Saturday afternoons at 3:00; Sunday afternoons at 2:00. There will also be a 7:30 performance on Monday evening, Jan. 21. For more information and tickets please visit CentralSquareTheater.org or call 866-811-4111.