Friday, 17 July 2009

Mountaintop- the real Martin Luther King

I had the pleasure of seeing the astounding Mountaintop by Katori Hall at the Trafalgar Studios last night. The play, directed by James Dacre, and is set in King's room- 306 - in the Lorraine Motel. It features a final night conversation between Reverend King ("Preacher King", "Michael") and a maid who is not what she seems. He was to be assassinated on the balcony outside the room. The play absolutely captured the essence of King.

An FBI file bigger than the bible is enough to make a man understandably neurotic, but he was also vain, afraid, and his personal conduct failed to live up to the morals he preached. J Edgar Hoover was obsessed with King- officially because he suspected communist motives-and bugged his every move. Tapes of King's extra-martial affairs were sent to his wife Coretta Scott King and played relentlessly to journalists. Mountaintop captures these human frailties magnificently. At times, David Harewood became King. Not a mythologised or demonised King but a King, warts and all. Lorraine Burroughs' intelligent, wickedly humorous, but beguilingly sexy foil for Harewood was intoxicating.

The fact is though despite the flesh being weak the will of this man was strong, oh so strong. His flaws only serve to underline his greatness. Without pause or hesitation we can say Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and King and right there we have a list of the finest that the United States has ever produced.

Reverend King changed America. The Civil Rights Acts was essential and with a little help from his not such a friend, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, he got that through Congress. But it was the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that serves as an even greater legacy. Again, that mangled historical figure, President Johnson, gave what was one of the great speeches to Congress ending with the words of the the gospel hymn that had become the anthem of the civil rights movement, "We shall overcome." Martin Luther King cried. America was changed forever. That legacy of greatness is King's for eternity. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act constitute key components of the American canon- along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipatory Proclamation. Rivers run from the mountaintop to the valley. King stands astride the mountaintop.

So Mountaintop holds the flaws and the greatness of this preacher from Atlanta, Georgia in constant, artful tension. It only loses its way at one point when the maid gives what is basically a Malcolm X speech- black nation and pride. Kings gets sucked into it but that would never have happened. It was Malcolm X who genuflected to King. In the play, he pulls back but non-violence, equality, and integration were King's unshakable philosophies. He engaged with early Malcolm X only to dismiss him. In fact, when he was shot, he was planning his Poor People's Campaign which would almost have undoubtedly failed given the cultural and political stresses that the US was facing. But he was reaching beyond ethnicity into class and poverty.

And finally, were the Barack Obama references really necessary? Another 'one' is to come who will also have King's golden tongue- starting to get a bit Hollywood for a brief moment. Hmmmmm. The play ends on 'yes, we can.' Hmmmmm. Firstly, it is not just 'one.' Secondly, Barack Obama has his place in history- as do many others. But greatness? Only time will tell. It jarred in what was otherwise a marvellous take on one of America's truly great figures.

Don't let this detract. The writing, direction, performances, honesty, and energy of this production are intensely accomplished. King's premonition of his death- more concrete than the simple everyday feeling of threat would have created- is one of the great mysteries. Let's not ponder the explanation. Let's just enjoy the words. Oh, what words.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And 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. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
Post script: I meant to mention a book I read recently alongside this. Eric J Sundquist's King's Dream dissects the 'I have a dream' speech magnificently. It dissects the influence on the speech- biblical, popular cultural, political, historical, personal- and the influence of this greatest speech given before 250,000 or so in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

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