Abundance of highlights in 'The Mountaintop' at Linda in Albany
What: A play by Katori Hall
When: Tonight (Feb. 29), 7:30; Sunday (March 1), 3 p.m.
Where: The Linda WAMC's Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany, N.Y.
Stars: Iniabasi Nelson as Martin Luther King Jr.; Angelique Powell as Camae
Presented by: Confetti Stage
Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 students. $8 per person for groups of eight or more Ticket info: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-mountaintop-tickets-88544526061?aff=ebdssbeac or The Linda at (518) 465-5233
By Patrick White
Special to InPlay Capital Region
The Confetti Stage community theater group invited the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York and Jean-Remy Monnay -- the troupe’s founder and artistic director -- to choose any play to present at The Linda in Albany during Black History Month in February.
In his curtain speech, Monnay described how he felt compelled to seize the opportunity because he always had a dream of Capital Region companies working together. He dreamed there would come a time when companies would do shows filled with actors of color, that there wouldn’t just be opportunities for actors of color when community theaters decided to do “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Hairspray.”
Monnay also said the dream included inclusive casting so that actors of color would be considered for any role when ethnicity is not central to the role. He challenged audience members, many of them Capital Region theater participants, that we still have a long way to go in that respect.
This year he chose “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream as well.
We join MLK, played by Iniabasi Nelson, at the top of the play as he enters his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. King had just delivered his famous Mountaintop speech, where he portentously exclaimed in the final paragraph that “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. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
The speech was in support of a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.
In the play, King enters the room in the middle of a rainstorm and shouts to his associate, Ralph Abernathy, to pick him up a pack of Pall Malls. King takes off his shoes, revealing his smelly feet, and we hear him urinating loudly. So this is a portrait of the man on the night before he meets his fate.
Next there is a knock at the door. In comes the maid, Camae, played by Angelique Powell, in a Crayola box performance that uses every color she has -- and then some.
She’s delivering coffee on her first day on the job, and soon she is tussling with the Civil Rights leader. They flirt with each other, share Pall Malls, argue politics and intention and pillow-fight before the play moves into a different realm.
This is a great play of speculative history, what might it have been like to visit this man at this moment and what might be going through his mind. “The Mountaintop” performs a great service by imagining and humanizing the great man -- some may object that it goes too far in that regard -- and giving us entry into the quotidian details of what it takes to walk the long road of a life committed to social justice.
In his Mountaintop speech, King also spoke of unity and how the Pharaoh cannot hold
onto power if the slaves are united. The play captures King in this moment of time, and through a terrific magical device, which I can’t reveal, gives him and us a view of the Promised Land. It’s a view that challenges us with all that’s left to be done, much more so now than in 2011, when the play premiered on Broadway.
Powell is terrific in the maid role, even better than you can imagine. It’s a great match of performer and role, but I wasn’t prepared for her unabashed freedom as Camae. She is lightning quick and powerfully direct, and I have never heard pealing laughter used to greater effect. She is otherworldly in this part, a great welcome to Nelson, who in this monumental role is making his community theater debut. He could be clearer and more forceful in his speech, but he deserves great credit for his work and holding his own against Powell.
The physical production is sketched in with a door flat, a wall stage left and a bed borrowed from the director’s guest room, as he announced in the curtain speech. Monnay has created a solid dynamic of the actors working off each other, but he could have gone further with the magic required by the script. He is greatly assisted by a sound design from Chad Reid and a lighting design by Nicholas Nealon.
Monnay and the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York have taken Confetti Stage’s invitation and created a beautiful gift of a production that thrills, entertains and most importantly forces us to align our actions with our beliefs and pick up the baton and move the race forward.
My sincere gratitude to all involved for the enormous amount of work on display in “The Mountaintop.”