Late in Katori Hall's award-winning, two-person play about Dr. Martin Luther King's last night on earth, the civil rights leader peers into the future and sees all the tragedies and triumphs that lie ahead, both for the black community and America itself — the crack epidemic and gang violence, The Cosby Show and Run-DMC, Colin Powel and Condi Rice, Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.
Yes, black presidents. It's a subtle but masterful touch by Hall, one that recognizes that Barack Obama isn't the culmination of the civil rights movement, that his election to the presidency isn't the end to the struggle of black Americans. That would have been trite, and frankly, wrong. One only has to look at Tea Party rallies and the rhetoric of right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter to see the deep-seated hatred of Obama based solely on his skin color. But in the future, as America elects another black president and then another and another, then perhaps King's dream will finally have come true.
"I believe in a world of black presidents in America," Hall says. "It will happen again. And again. That's what progress demands."
First performed in 2009 in London, The Mountaintop landed on Broadway in 2011 with Samuel L. Jackson taking on the role of Dr. King and Angela Bassett as the hotel maid Camae. Not surprisingly, it was a hit. This week, PURE Theatre stages Hall's award-winning play with Kyle Taylor as MLK and Joy Vandervort-Cobb as the hard-to-read maid.
In part, this magical reimagining of King on the eve of his assassination owes its success to Hall's decision to portray King not as a saint but as a flesh-and-blood human being with all of a person's flesh-and-blood failings. And in King's case, those failings are now well known. The good reverend was not only a chain smoker but a womanizer, a truth that some folks would rather ignore. "My intention was always to show a human King, not a sanitized toothless tiger that has become part of 7th grade history lore," Hall says. "Sure, there are people who were horrified by my removal of him from his pedestal. I mean, you walk into my grandmother's living room and there are two pictures on the wall — Dr. King and Jesus. To de-Jesus-fy [King] could be seen as an act of denigration to this black superhero."
But Hall believes that this very act serves a higher purpose. "Seeing the humanity in our heroes allows us to see the hero in ourselves," she says.
When it comes to King and others, Graci feels that far too often we ignore their humanity. Instead of trying to see them for who they really are, we try to turn them into saints and supermen, when in fact they have all the flaws of your average Joe. "We have a tendency to put our heroes on pedestals. Oftentimes, the only way is down," Graci says. "And then we're shocked and surprised when they show real human behavior."
Graci adds, "Katori Hall in her piece doesn't show anything that the average person or viewer would find offensive in what she says about Dr. King, but she does show him as a human being for sure, which is all that he ever was."
The PURE artistic director sympathizes with King, a man who was under a tremendous amount of pressure, the type of which very few of us ever experience. "He's also dealing with death threat after death threat after death threat. He's already been threatened. His church had been bombed. His family was pretty consistently being threatened. If you can imagine carrying that weight," Graci says.
Like the rock stars and Hollywood starlets of today, King lost any semblance of having a private life outside of the hotel rooms that he inhabited on his travels around country. And in the case of The Mountaintop, it's Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.
"You can't go anywhere. You can't do anything. You become public property," Graci says. "I definitely think that happened to Dr. King. All of a sudden you belong to the masses when the reality is you are just simply a human being like everybody else."
It's hard to escape the spectre of death that looms over The Mountaintop. We know what happens on April 4, 1968. We know about James Earl Ray. We know that the Rev. Jesse Jackson dips his hands in King's own blood. We know that the civil rights movement loses a leader that is never ever replaced. At its heart, The Mountaintop is the story of Dr. King coming to grips with his legacy, both his failures and his triumphs. Just as importantly, Hall presents a reverend doctor who is faced with the fact that he might not live to see all his dreams come true. It's a sentiment that Hall herself understands quite well.
"As human beings, particularly ambitious ones, we are hardly satisfied with their life's work. It's what keeps them going, burning candles at both ends," she says. "But all candles eventually must burn out. Life is meant to be extinguished."
And in the case of Martin Luther King, that moment came far too soon.