If he were still alive today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 90. It’s been 51 years since his assassination, and it’s already difficult to imagine that such a person lived, with such power to mobilize people in the struggle for freedom and equality. His life can feel like folklore now, like a saint’s life.
This play by Katori Hall, which opens the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre’s 40th season of showing Black playwrights’ work in Evanston, exposes Dr. King, played by Jelani Pitcher, for what we always knew him to have been: a human being. He was a supremely flawed man, prone to cheating and “carrying on,” in the words of the script. When Pitcher makes his first entrance at the top of the show, he’s yelling offstage for cigarettes. He pleads with the nighttime manager of the Lorraine Motel over the phone for a cup of room-service coffee. He takes a leak.
Serving King his coffee on a fictionalized version of that stormy April night in Memphis, the last of his life, is a Black southern maid at the motel named Camae, played with foul-mouthed, confident brilliance by Shadana Patterson. The show consists entirely of the interaction between “Preacher King,” as Camae calls him, and this maid who is more than she at first seems: God, like J. Edgar Hoover, has a file on Preacher King, which Camae has read. She knows what’s in store.
Pitcher plays King as a man on the brink of complete exhaustion, consumed with terror for his life and uncertainty about the fate of his movement. “Fear is my lover,” he says. Patterson beautifully alternates between dressing down King for his self-importance and coddling his insecurity, between pushing away his advances and acquiescing to them. When revelation comes, she does the talking while Pitcher listens. Pitcher’s performance begins in fear and ends with a transfiguration, as the earthly Martin Luther King Jr.—who worries for his movement’s future, who plays too much, and who is so scared of being shot at any moment that thunderclaps outside the window startle him from his chair—prepares himself spiritually, with Carmae’s help, for martyrdom.
In his last speech, the real Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the Promised Land.” This play, which debuted in 2009, tries to insist that the Promised Land for which King died is somehow our glorious present. Now it feels like a song of innocence from the heart of the Obama years. As the poet Simone White has said, “Every minute the Declaration must be signed.” King didn’t have the luxury of assurance in anything; he was a prisoner of hope. He believed in his people’s fight for freedom, even if that fight will never end. That faith, not any assurance, is what allowed him to intone, before he died, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” v