L.A. Theatre Works is touring a production of the award-winning play by Katori Hall called The Mountaintop. This two-person production considers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final night on earth, after his "Mountaintop" speech and before his assassination. The 38-city tour makes a stop in Wilmington on Thursday, February 1st at Kenan Auditorium at 7:30 pm.
The Mountaintop premiered in London in 2009 to critical acclaim…and it won the Olivier Award from the Society of London Theatre. Director Shirley Jo Finney says one notable strength of the play is the way playwright Katori Hall captures the human-ness of Martin Luther King. While this is ostensibly a live “radio play,” Shirley Jo says it’s actually a performance trifecta. Listen above or read our extended conversation below.
Gina: Shirley Jo, thanks so much for taking out a few minutes here to talk to me this morning about The Mountaintop, which is going to be performing here in Wilmington soon. I have seen LA TheatreWorks once live and listen to them a lot so I'm excited for them to be here again. Are you coming?
Shirley Jo: No. I was with them two shows in Washington and then I left them when they were on their way to Notre Dame and I went home. I'm based out of Bellingham, Washington. So it was really nice that they had those performances in Washington, so I took the plane with them and then I said goodbye and then I'll rejoin them when they go to Bermuda to brush up the show for the second half of the tour.
Gina: That's a good time to join them.
Shirley Jo: Yes, I thought so.
Gina: I know a little bit about the play but would you tell me about this interesting play, The Mountaintop?
Shirley Jo: Yes. The show takes place the evening after Martin Luther King spoke at the church where he gave his Mountaintop speech and the night before he was assassinated. So it all takes place in a motel. Lorraine Motel in Tennessee. And it is a conversation between him and a maid that brings him coffee. We spend the evening with him talking to her and he's actually revisiting, reevaluating. And we get to peek inside his inner thoughts of his living, his laughing, his dying and crying.
One of the beautiful things that [playwright] Katori Hall did was, we always take our iconic figures and we put them up on these pedestals that we forget that they're human and they become these iconic figures. And we have this hero worship consciousness. So if they ever do anything, they have fallen off and have given us a disservice for not living up to our expectations. What we get to see in the hour and 17 minutes the show takes place is we get to experience Dr. Martin Luther King as a human being. As a man. One who has doubts, one who has fears, one who has regrets, one who loves, one who gets enraged and angry, one who weeps. So we get to experience him. And one who also, among all of the things that he had experienced up until that time, one who still has hope. The room becomes a kind of metaphysical experience because we later find that the maid is not who she pretends to be and so it makes for a wonderful evening that you get to take the journey with him.
The two actors- Gilbert Glenn Brown and Karen Molina White- are just totally terrific and give such a powerful, impassioned, passionate performance that everywhere they have played thus far they've been getting standing ovations. People have been coming up to them thanking them for the performance. One of the things that is important and is lovely to witness is that in this particular time in our country, people are hungry. People are hungry for inspiration, for hope, for change, for something to uplift us and one of the lines in the play is that there will never be a Martin Luther King. People like him only come once in a lifetime, like a Gandhi. Where and individual is larger and meets a synchronicity, a perfect storm, with the needs of the people. Someone rises up and becomes that oracle. Right now there is no one that has that voice.
So when you get to experience Gilbert saying the lines that Katori Hall has put down on paper, when you get to hear those words again, one becomes inspired sitting in those seats. I think that his last speech- which I'm not going to say- his last speech is so inspirational. The way Gilbert delivers the speech, you almost forget that you are listening to an actor. These are the words that you want someone to say. You want to rally behind someone with a vision. An architect for the people. And we forget that we don't have that. At the end of that play people just automatically jump up because he's invited all of us to pick up that baton- it doesn't matter who you are. You as an individual can pick up that baton and create change.
Gina: This was written as a play, not as a radio play. Not as radio theater- is that right?
Shirley Jo: Yes. It was first performed in London and then in 2012, I believe, it was performed in New York for a limited run with Sam Jackson and Angela Bassett. When one comes into the theater you have three different disciplines; you have the experience of the radio play with the foley, with the microphone, but you will also experience- because I have staged it like if you were going to theater- these actors are moving around. So it is also staged and it is a multimedia experience where you have video projection. You're sitting in that audience hearing the radio drama but you are also seeing a stage play.
Gina: Have you ever directed radio theater before?
Shirley Jo: Yes, I have had an association with Susan Albert Loewenberg and the LA Theatre Works for several years. I have directed four shows for them. When I directed, it was just straight foley actors standing at the microphone. This is my first time doing this where you mount the show and for the tour- they have 38 cities they're going to- and you're mounting it as if it is a theatrical experience. This is something new that they've done in the last several years which I really kind of like because it gives the audience a chance to really have a full evening of theater.
Gina: Yeah, that's what it sounds like. I love radio plays.
Shirley Jo: The other thing that is different because there's only two actors- usually you have a foley artist on stage that does most of the sound effects, but because of the way I staged it and because they're moving around, the actors are doing their own foley.
Gina: Oh that is so fun.
Shirley Jo: Yeah. So I had to incorporate that in the concept.
Gina: That's great. And this play won an award- it was a winner of the Olivier?
Shirley Jo: Yes.
Gina: Why do you think you won it that award?
Shirley Jo: I think it was not only that she's a fabulous writer, but I think it was the subject matter. Again, she took an iconic figure and brought him... that we could see he was equally yoked with us as being human in mind, body and spirit. I think that was unusual and the construct of it was unique and I think that was the reason why she won that award.
Gina: Shirley Jo, is there anything else you would like to say to people whose town this show is coming to?
Shirley Jo: I would just say come with open heart, open mind, enjoy the experience and pick up the baton.