Four views from ‘The Mountaintop,’ streaming live from the Arts Barn

Two actors and two directors talk about Katori Hall's gripping play about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By Laura W. Andruski, theater program coordinator, The Arts Barn

Rockville Little Theatre – in cooperation with Arts on the Green – will livestream The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s gripping reimagining of events the night before the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Six live performances from the City of Gaithersburg’s Arts Barn stage will be available online February 19 to 28, 2021.

On April 3, 1968, after delivering one of his most memorable speeches, an exhausted Dr. King retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel while a storm rages outside. When a mysterious stranger arrives with some surprising news, King is forced to confront his destiny and his legacy to his people.

The Mountaintop is produced by Jerry Callestein and Eric Henry and directed by Miriam Bowden and features Robert Freemon as Martin Luther King Jr. and Zenia McPherson as Camae. In the following interviews with Zenia and Robert as well as Carrie Edick, assistant director at Rockville Little Theatre, and Miriam Bowden, director at Rockville Little Theatre, they talk about the impact of the play today and their roles in it.

Zenia McPherson portrays Camea, the maid at the Lorraine Motel who challenges Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on many different levels.

Zenia McPherson, actor at Rockville Little Theatre

Tell us about your role.

Camae is a maid at the Lorraine Motel. This is her first day. She is young, beautiful, and blunt. She admires Dr. King’s ideology but also likes to challenge his authenticity with her rawness.

What do you love about this character?

I love Camae’s inability to be fake. She says what’s on her mind, with no filter. She cusses, smokes, and drinks in the presence of Dr. King, forever mindful of her raw muchness. I respect her strength and candor.

What do you hate about this character?

As much as I admire Camae’s honesty, I detest it as well. I feel that her lack of self-control leaves her vulnerable and more susceptible to scrutiny. Camae is very sensitive but hides it under her steely strength.

What’s the biggest challenge about taking on this role?

Being able to gather and make sense of all the labels of her, while giving her humanity. She is loud, very erratic, but so full of hope. She is the voice of angry Black youth in the ’60s.

Besides yourself, what celebrity would you like to see tackle Camae?

Jurnee Smollett-Bell is an actress featured in the series Lovecraft Country, a science-fiction show. There’s a certain amount of spunk that Camae has that I believe Jurnee Smollett-Bell would be able to really play with.

What’s your favorite line?

“F*** the white man! F*** the white man! I say, F*** ‘em!” This is my favorite line because it gives a perfect understanding of the perspective of some of the Black youth in the ’60s.

Robert Freemon portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and shares what it’s like to walk in the shoes of MLK.

Robert Freemon, actor at Rockville Little Theatre

What do you love about this character?

I think everyone is familiar with who MLK Jr.—the prolific speaker, doctor, preacher, minister—was. But rarely do we see the vulnerable side of him. The moral failures, the times when he didn’t get it right. I think this play really does give us a glimpse of what a giant might feel like when he’s alone, unguarded and disarmed.

What do you hate about this character?

I honestly don’t “hate” anything about this character. But I am learning how to hold a cigarette properly [laughs].

What’s the biggest challenge about taking on this role?

Portraying an icon! Everyone knows Dr. King. They know his speeches, they know his mannerisms, they know how he makes words sing. It’s hard to portray such a popular figure in history, especially if you don’t do it correctly. But also it’s hard to portray someone like Dr. King as a vulnerable, open man who is coming to terms with death. As my mother used to say, “You can’t hide from God, everything that happens in the dark will come to light.”

Besides yourself, what celebrity would you like to see tackle Dr. King?

Well aside from Samuel L. Jackson and David Oyelowo (who have played Dr. King before), I think Jamie Foxx or Will Smith (my two favorite actors) would really be able to portray the comedic side and the seriousness that this play calls for.

What’s your favorite line?

Sooooo many—but without giving away anything about the play, one of my favorite lines that King says is “A rainbow of people chanting, ‘Stop the war on Vietnam! Start the war on poverty!’ ”

Assistant Director Carrie Edick shares her insights into working in a virtual format to prepare for livestreaming the play and the importance of the theatrical work for today’s modern audience.

Carrie Edick, assistant director at Rockville Little Theatre

What is your role in the production?

I wear a few different hats on this show. I am the assistant director, stage manager, and intimacy/fight choreographer.

What sort of person is going to love this show?

I always love asking the dramaturgical question “Why this show at this time for this audience?” I honestly believe this show was written for all audiences to hear and is a very important work that should be listened to. I think anyone that is angry about the state of the world right now will enjoy this show. Anyone who loves theater. Anyone willing to come with an open mind and heart to hear the message we are trying to send out.

What’s challenging about bringing this script to life?

Something none of us have faced before is rehearsing and performing a show in a world plagued by a pandemic. How do we still go about making theater in a safe way? How do we maintain safety for all of us?

We began our process over Zoom. We rehearsed in an online platform for about a month before actually getting to meet each other in person. We did a lot of character work and scene work as best we could digitally, which was a new challenge for all of us.

As we are in a pandemic, one challenging thing for me is tracking everything the actors do, down to when I can sneak them out of the camera shot to have them gurgle an alcohol mixture to sanitize their mouths. When can I cut the cameras to another angle so the actors can fake sharing a singular cigarette? My biggest goal and challenge on this production is maintaining everyone’s safety. While it may appear that the actors are handing each other cigarettes in the show or sharing them, they each have their own that only they touch. Our main goal is to have them physically interact as little as possible; and when they do, they are freshly sanitized and are doing so as safely as possible.

Why did you want to be involved in this production?

I wanted to first be on this production first because of the company. Everyone working on this production is so kind and wonderful to work with. While we are in a pandemic, this process has still been nothing less than an amazing experience overall.

I also wanted to be involved in this production because it is so relevant to our society. One thing we have been talking about a lot over the course of our rehearsals is the state of the world right now and how it changes/relates to the meanings, themes, and conflicts that are in this play. While yes, some things have changed since MLK was assassinated, we still have very far to go in reaching civil rights for everyone in our society.

How is this production bringing something new to this story?

Given the recent headlines, this play takes on a new meaning for our modern-day audiences. The show talks about the injustices in what it means to be white versus Black in our society, yet just recently we see how the Black Lives Matter rallies were handled by our police versus the terrorists storming the Capitol. I think the blatant distinctions our society still holds for white supremacists versus minority groups in our country only elevate this story even more.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and we are still having the same issues today. I think this play helps to sound the wakeup call this country has been deaf to for hundreds of years.

What’s going to surprise people about this show?

I think the way we are producing this show will surprise people. While we cannot perform for a live audience, we are excited to perform through a livestream. We will be performing our production as we would if we had an audience in the theater and will be doing so each night. This is not a one-and-done deal; we will be live for the entire run.

I also think audiences will be surprised at the sheer amount of talent, passion, and chemistry both of our actors bring to their roles. This play is a lot funnier than I think people coming into this will expect. Robert and Zee are both truly incredible and make me laugh every single rehearsal. They embody the raw emotions of hope, love, loss, humor, defeat, anger, and passion that I think Katori Hall was striving to produce within this play.

Director Miriam Bowden’s vision for the The Mountaintop reveals Dr. Martin Luther King, not just as an icon, but as a vulnerable human being, replete with human desires and foibles. I caught up with Bowden to get the inside story on the show everyone will be talking about

Miriam Bowden, director at Rockville Little Theatre

What’s The Mountaintop about?

The Mountaintop is about The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on Earth. He has a surprisingly funny and emotion-filled discussion with one the Lorraine Motel’s house maids, after ordering room service for a cup of coffee.

What made Rockville Little Theatre choose this play?

Rockville Little Theatre is constantly seeking out new ways and diverse material to capture the hearts of our entire community. We chose this play because it is about one of the greatest heroes of our time, Martin Luther King. We also thought about being able to produce a variety of plays, in a variety of venues, besides our grandly mounted productions that we normally present at F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. It was an intimate play that would work nicely at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.

What attracted you to this piece as a director?

I was attracted to this play for its intimacy and subject matter. After these several tumultuous years, in the U.S., I wanted to be a part of reminding our community of our past values through remembering Dr. King. I have directed television shows, professionally, and plays with middle school students, but this is my first community theater production, so starting with something simple and direct—one act, one scene, two characters—seemed appropriate.

You’re doing some unique things with the treatment of the show—tell us about the setting and other unique things you’re doing in this production. How will that enhance the experience for the audience?

Well, the entire play is set in room 306 in the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee, on the stormy night of April 3rd, 1968, the night before King’s assassination, which happened on the balcony, right outside of the room. Our treatment of the show has been necessitated by the reality and restrictions of the COVID pandemic. The play will be livestreamed for six performances, not recordings, but a live performance for every show. Doing it this way, we are attempting to maintain the unique qualities presented by live theater. Patrons can purchase family tickets for one reasonable $20 fee and watch from the safety and comfort of their own homes.

What challenges does the The Mountaintop present for you and your cast?

The Mountaintop is an intimate play, involving the close proximity of two actors. Due to COVID, we have to ensure the safety of our cast and crew. Rockville Little Theatre and The City of Gaithersburg have put together a precise and strictly monitored protocol to protect everyone involved. Another one of our challenges is to present the play without an audience in the house. Live theater actors usually depend on interaction with their audience. We are employing a three-camera studio video production setup to capture the most intense moments, while maintaining as much of a true theater experience as possible.

What else do we need to know about the show?

To quote a line from the show: “It’s funny, laugh!” It really does take the viewer on a rollercoaster of emotion. It is both very poignant and funny. It is also vulnerable and inspirational. I feel honored to work on the show with dedicated and talented actors and production crew members.

The Mountaintop performs live from February 19 to 28, 2021, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are available online. Only one $20 purchase is needed per household. Recommended for ages 14 and up.

This livestreamed show is brought to you in partnership with Mandolin. Within one week before the show, you will receive an email from Mandolin with a link to the show and instructions on how to log in to the performance. For questions about streaming or to purchase tickets by phone, call 301-258-6394.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here