When I was young, I had the idea that Martin Luther King Jr., who earned his PhD in theology, was actually a medical doctor. With a word or a laying on of hands, I imagined, he could mend wounds, cure diseases.
I learned eventually what every child does—about King’s famous dream, and the end of legalized racial segregation. Unquestionably just, unquestionably right, and nominally fulfilled, that dream is easy to share today, when there are no fire hoses pointed against it. But like the healing hands, the dream is a mystical oversimplification. It obscures the man and the goals he set for America in his final years, which are broader than desegregation, and remain woefully unfulfilled.
In The Mountaintop, her punchy, irreverent 2011 play, meticulously staged by Court Theatre, Katori Hall sweeps aside the gauzy mythos. We meet the MLK with a smoking habit and smelly feet, worrying that his mustache makes him look old. The Lorraine Motel, on the eve of his assassination, is King’s version of Gethsemane. Just back from delivering the magnificent address that would be his last, he dispatches disciples to pick up a pack of cigarettes and sits, tremendously alone, on the shabby pink bedspread of room 306.
I recall from Sunday school my disbelief at the story of Gethsemane, where Jesus wept bitter tears, praying to be spared crucifixion. Why so self-involved, if humankind’s salvation really hangs in the balance?
For one thing, it makes the protagonist sympathetic, and raises the narrative stakes immensely.
The Mountaintop, surprisingly, is a comedy, and in the hands of Ron OJ Parson, a good one. David Alan Anderson portrays King with the quick wit and high competence that Hall’s erratic script demands. As the mercurial maid Camae, who keeps vigil with King, Lisa Beasley proves a captivating foil.
But for all of the humor, Hall trades on the seriousness of her subject, and it’d be nice to get something serious in return. We see King’s human side, or at least a speculative version of it, but learn little from the experience.
When he was killed, King was in the process of transformation. As he laid plans for another march on Washington, his focus was shifting to economic justice. The Mountaintop refers to these plans, but not nearly as forcefully as King did in his final days.
To pick an ironic example: In that final address, King rallied supporters to fight for fair wages and hiring practices. He called for a boycott of Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola—which splashed King’s image across its 1988 “Share the Dream Scholarship Sweepstakes” ad campaign, and touts this play on its website (and which gave Hall a scholarship in 1999). Times do change, but the soda giant settled a massive discrimination lawsuit in 2000, and currently faces another. Hall’s play does not mention the boycott.
The finale of King’s last speech is chilling. King alludes to the death of Moses, who glimpsed the promised land from the top of a mountain, but died before he could get there himself. “It really doesn’t matter what happens now,” he says, referring vaguely to recent death threats. “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.”
The thought of King glimpsing the future, particularly the 2008 presidential election, raises goosebumps. For the man with a dream, it’s a temptingly neat completion of moral and narrative arcs.
The biggest disappointment of The Mountaintop is that it succumbs to that temptation. After spending 80 minutes prodding King for every human weakness, Hall humps him right to the mountaintop, where, to our pleasure, he sees us.
But should we feel very pleased? The year King was killed, America’s top 1 percent earned 11 percent of the country’s total income. Last year, they earned 23 percent. Thirty-nine percent of black children live below the poverty line in America, roughly the same as in 1968.
For his own final sermon, Jesus talked about hypocrisy. It’s easy to build grand tombs for prophets, he pointed out. And it’s easy to say you’d treat the slain prophet better than your ancestors did.
“Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers,” he said. “Some of them you will kill.”