King comes back down to earth

The Mountaintop portrays the human side of the legendary civil rights activist

“Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.”

So Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opened his famous I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech on April 3 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis.

It would be the last speech King would ever make a speech that was eerily prophetic with his allusions to the “Promised Land” and his “Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.”

The following morning James Earl Ray gunned down the 39-year-old civil rights activist.

King’s last night on Earth is the setting for Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop which makes its Canadian première at Theatre Calgary after debuting in London in 2009 and winning the Laurence Olivier award for best new play despite mixed critical reviews.

Audiences meet King played by Kevin Hanchard in room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel. Hanchard who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Mississauga says King had a “huge” influence upon him.

“There was no growing up without Martin Luther King and being aware of his struggles” Hanchard says.

While he was spared the abuse of having fire hoses or police dogs turned on him he says even as a Canadian “The struggles still existed.”

“When you see someone against oppression and tyranny there is no way for it not to affect everyone’s life and recognize the significance of it” he explains adding that the pride King instilled in the black community was not unlike the sense of pride people felt when Barack Obama was elected president.

Hanchard says when he first read The Mountaintop he felt he “had” to do it in part because of the way in which Hall humanizes King. She depicts King as a man — not as a god — who likes to smoke and drink and is spending his last evening alive in a “crappy little motel.”

“Over time these things get sanitized…. He’s not presented as the Dr. Martin Luther King that we’ve all come to know and expect. He’s tired he’s beat up he’s exhausted he’s losing his voice” Hanchard explains. “It’s not glitz. It’s not glamour. It’s not devoid of the ugly bits.”

Enter Camae (Beryl Bain) a “feisty young maid” who Hanchard describes as the “polar opposite” of King.

“Her function is to take King away from the flowery rhetoric and put him in a pair of sweatpants and slippers and really talk” says Hanchard adding that “sparks fly” between the two because of differences in personality and philosophy.

As Hanchard points out King’s belief in non-violent resistance was not universally approved of by those in the black community and many did not want to practise his “turn-the-other-cheek” philosophy.

Hanchard also sees The Mountaintop as a “call to arms.”

“By humanizing Dr. King it shows there is an element of him that lives within every single one of us. If you have a dream if you feel there is an injustice in the world you too can do it” he says.

Hanchard says he “burned up” YouTube analyzing video and audio footage of King’s vocal cadences and mannerisms not to mention spending countless hours reading about King and the Civil Rights Movement. However he says at the end of the day The Mountaintop remains an “imagined retelling” of King a combined vision of his own Hall’s and director Jan Alexandra Smith’s.

Without mincing words Hanchard says The Mountaintop goes beyond being a “black show.”

“No matter what your political bent may be no matter your relationship with the Civil Rights Movement if you have blood coursing through your veins there’ll be something you can connect with in this play.”