By Jordan Wright
When playwright and actor Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” was staged on Broadway in 2011, it starred Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson, two of the finest American actors we know.
But after taking in Arena Stage’s latest production, irresistibly directed by Robert O’Hara, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles except the stars of this production: Bowman Wright as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae.
From the moment the lights go up on Clint Ramos’ set design of the Lorraine Motel, all the images of that tragic day decades ago come flooding back: the dark-suited men on the second-floor balcony pointing to the direction where the bullets had been fired, the foreboding sky and the subsequent revelations of how we lost one of the country’s most powerful civil rights leaders on the night after he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.
Hall’s play imagines that rainy night and King’s conversations with Camae, a hotel maid, who brings a cup of coffee to his room and stays with him until the fateful hour. Camae is a sassy, sexy, amusingly profane foil for the serious preacher.
“I need a needle and thread to sew up my mouth,” she confesses after one too many expletives.
With her Pall Mall cigarettes tucked in her bra — “My daddy said Kools’ll kill ya” — and her flask cached in her stocking top, she appeals to King’s well-known weaknesses and they spend the evening flirting and talking of race relations and the war on poverty. He is working on a speech in room 306, more familiarly known as the “King-Abernathy Suite,” and it’s clear he is easily distracted by her not inconsiderable charms.
As the night progresses and the rain turns to light snow, King’s visions and suspicions of her uncanny knowledge of his childhood name bring out his paranoia.
“Fear has become my companion,” he admits. “I know the touch of fear even more than I know the touch of my own wife.”
To recount the subsequent plot twists would be to act the spoiler, so I’ll put a pin in it from that point on.
Crafting an engrossing script for an audience who knows the outcome of these historical events can be challenging, but Hall delivers with electrifying dialogue and inspiring originality. Wright and Kalukango are seamlessly convincing.
Well worth noting are lighting designer Japhy Weideman and projection designer Jeff Sugg, whose evocative special effects conjure the mood of the night and, in a surprising ending, use flashback projections to depict one of the most radically tumultuous eras in American history.
“The Mountaintop” runs through May 12 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, D.C. 20024. For tickets and information, call 202-484-0247 or visit www.arenastage.org.