Katori Hall's play about MLK gets effective production from Center Stage

No matter how many times it is replayed, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Memphis, April 3, 1968, retains uncommon, chilling power. “Longevity has its place,” he said. “But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.”

In more ways than one, that sentiment haunts "The Mountaintop," Katori Hall's provocative, fanciful play about King's final hours in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel.

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Since its modest Broadway run in 2011, the play has picked up steam. Several productions are slated around the country this season, including a satisfying one currently on the boards at Center Stage with a terrific cast.

It is easy to quibble with Hall's concept, especially the turn in the plot that the press has been asked not to discuss, for the benefit of unsuspecting audiences.

Even before that point, however, ....

you may find yourself questioning the playwright’s effort to capture the human side of King, right down to the use of a toilet (offstage) and references to smelly feet.

The language (including the 'N' word), the smoking and, after a decidedly saucy maid name Camae answers his room service call, the flirting — they all take a layer off the varnish on the martyred civil rights leader. Of course, we all know that King was, like the rest of us, imperfect, but some of Hall's methods to drive that point home can seem forced.

Speaking of forced, there are anachronistic, even deconstructionist turns along the way, including an effort to make King sound like an advocate for gay rights. I'm not sure that fits smoothly with the history of those days, when a remarkable figure early in the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin, was marginalized for being gay.

Sometimes, though, Hall's use of hindsight pays off nicely. The mere mention of the name Jesse, as in Jackson, gets interesting laughs. And, in the play's closing moments, a look at the view King did not live to see from his last mountaintop has undeniable force.

In the end, Hall's most remarkable achievement may be the way she reveals the unvarnished King to be such an extremely engaging man.

He's capable of humor and caprice (OK, the pillow fight scene may be a step too far). He's incisive and sensitive. Asked by the maid to name one thing blacks and white have in common, he responds: "We scared, Camae. We all scared. Scared of each other. Scared of ourselves."

He is aware of his limitations, and even more painfully aware of his the potential he wants to fulfill.

The Center Stage production gains considerably from Shawn Hamilton's portrayal of King. He's an arresting presence from the first moments — pacing the room, checking the phone for bugging, trying out a few lines from a new next speech, flinching at the sound of thunderclaps.

The actor does not lay on a thick impersonation, but lets his ability to conjure the Reverend sneak up on you. When Hamilton finally lets loose with oratory, the sound and cadence of his delivery have an uncanny ring.

Myxolydia Tyler jumps into the role of Camae with hips blazing and deep-fried Southern accent drippin'. The sexy banter and sexier moves recall Flip Wilson's Geraldine character a little too often, but Tyler ultimately wins you over.

Camae's irreverently funny side is a key element in the play, and Tyler makes it register. But as the maid reveals her back story — "I'm betta at cleanin' up other folks' messes than my own," Camae admits — the actress is just as keenly attentive to tone and nuance.

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Kwame Kwei-Armah directs the staging with a steady hand, attentive to mood and momentum. Neil Patel's spot-on set is evocatively lit by Scott Zielinski.

"The Mountaintop" is not the last word on King, but it makes a thoughtful, daring attempt to wrestle with his personality, his death, his legacy.

The only difference between the saint and the sinner, Oscar Wilde observed, is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Hall's ability to illuminate both sides of that coin makes for intriguing theater.

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