It’s not easy being the icon for a political and social movement, millions looking to you for leadership and hope, your every action and word scrutinized by supporters and detractors alike.
That much is immediately made clear within the first few moments of "The Mountaintop," at Austin Playhouse through Jan. 25. Katori Hall’s engaging and topically trenchant drama imagines the last night of Martin Luther King Jr. before his 1968 assassination on the balcony of a Memphis motel.
On April 3, 1968, one day before he was killed, King gave a speech, now commonly known as "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop." Though in support of a protracted strike by the largely African-American sanitation workers of Memphis, King’s speech is now parsed by historians for the prescient manner in which he alludes to his own death, wondering what might happen to him at the hands of "some of our sick white brothers" while also chastising the nation for its failure to live up its own founding ideals.
But in room 305 of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, we see King — deftly played by Marc Pouhé — as all too human, pacing anxiously and waiting for fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy to return to the room with King’s desired pack of cigarettes. King worries about the attendance at his speech, starts to pen a speech proclaiming "why America is going to hell." He makes a playfully domestic call to his wife, Coretta Scott King, about a forgotten toothbrush.
And whenever there’s a clap of thunder and lightning from the raging storm outside, we see the man responsible for igniting a worldwide movement for racial justice cower with surprise.
King, it seems, had a lifelong fear of lightning.
The greatest strength of Hall’s 90-minute intermissionless play — which netted the playwright the Olivier Award for Best New Play when it premiered in London in 2009 — is the way it offers a rounded and grounded portrait of a man whom history has vaulted to saintly status.
More of King’s ordinary foibles are revealed when Camae, an enigmatic yet spirited motel housekeeper, arrives delivering coffee.
Though at first Camae — played with a nimble sensitivity by Carla Nickerson — seems awestruck by the civil rights leader, the banter between the two turns first flirtatious (allusions of King’s infidelity abound) and then more complex as the true nature of Camae’s identity unwinds.
At its most rudimentary, "The Mountaintop" is a clever surprise-filled theatricality, one that — once the surprise is revealed — turns a little too predictable at the end.
Still, in its venture to bring some nuanced character to a larger-than-life historical figure, "The Mountaintop" succeeds with its own conceit in imagining what if, the night before he died, King had a premonition of his own death.