Dr. King’s last night alive in powerful ‘Mountaintop’ at Greenbelt Arts Center

Director Rikki Howie Lacewell does with Black history what more artists should: complicate, elevate, and force us to reflect on our varied roles.

What resonates most about Greenbelt Arts Center’s rewarding twist of the play The Mountaintop is the way Director Rikki Howie Lacewell and her crew deftly deploy sound, props, and lighting to place, humanize and deify Martin Luther King Jr., masterfully played by Ryan Willis, on the day before he was assassinated.

In one scene, King, conspiratorial, frustrated with the direction of his movement, and visibly exhausted, twists the receiver of the black rotary phone situated in his Lorraine Motel room to assure that the FBI is not spying on him. He then dashes off into the bathroom where we hear for 15 seconds the sound of him ranting and urinating before stumbling back to his desk where he manages to sketch out the outlines of the Poor People’s Campaign in less than two minutes.

Lydia West as Camae and Ryan Willis as Dr. King in ‘The Mountaintop.’ Photos by Kris Northrup.

In another particularly emotional scene, sound designer Jim Adams ramps up the noise of a Memphis thunderstorm: whooshing wind, splattering raindrops, and ear-splitting cracks of lighting, which sends King’s heart racing: he’s not scared of the KKK or the American government or God (who’s here cast as a woman). But, it turns out, he’s petrified of lightning.

The whole of Black American history can be so depressing, violent, and overwhelming for its consumers that playwrights are prone to sum its parts up into more palatable, usually uplifting stories about heroes and villains. This focus on the extremities drains civil rights leaders of their fallibilities, distorts our mainstream understanding of how average Black and white people navigate the bizarre nature of America’s caste system, and, outside the theater, has us all on the constant lookout for the next magical hero who will fight today’s perceived villain.

The Mountaintop, which was written by Katori Hall and debuted in 2009, interrupts this narrative.

On the evening of April 3, 1968, King is serviced at the Loraine Motel by Camae (Lydia West), an attractive maid with a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes stuffed in her bra, a sketchy past, and unusual ideas on what Black civil rights looks like.

Camae, it’s revealed partway through the 90-minute play, is an angel of death, and King begins to contemplate through a series of monologues what Black folks will do without him leading the movement.

It’s clear from the opening lines of the play that Director Lacewell, who also designed the set, spent an inordinate amount of time during rehearsals paying attention to detail.

Willis’ southern drawl, which he impressively maintains throughout, is eerily similar to King’s. The blocking made it clear there was thick sexual chemistry between Martin and Camae.

And the lighting interchangeably halos Camae and Martin.

Ryan Willis as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lydia West as Camae in ‘The Mountaintop.’ Photos by Kris Northrup.

You’re reminded over and over again through this powerful script, Lacewell’s choices, and Willis and West’s stealth acting, that King was an imperfect man. His socks are stinky and have holes in them. He begs for a cigarette when he gets anxious. Before his wife calls to update him on the latest threat she’s received, King perversely stares at Camae’s backside.

You’re also reminded, though, how much hope Americans placed in King to snuff out our caste system and how he so boldly volunteered to do so.

Lacewell’s prologue leaves us with a call to action that I found stirring. She manages to do with Black history what more artists should: complicate, elevate, and force us all to reflect on our varied roles.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Mountaintop plays through April 29, 2023, at Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway, Greenbelt, MD. For tickets ($24, general admission; $22, senior/military; $12, child/student), phone the Box Office at 301-441-8770, go online, email [email protected], or buy at the door.

The program for The Mountaintop is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are required when in the building. See Greenbelt Arts Center’s current COVID-19 Reopening Plan.

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall
Directed by Rikki Howie Lacewell
Produced by Pamela Northrup
Featuring Lydia West and Ryan Willis

Previous articleNYC’s Iconoclast Theatre Collective celebrates the launch of its latest projects for the 2023-24 season
Next articleRockville Little Theatre Wins Big at ESTA
Daarel Burnette II
Daarel Burnette II is a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Before joining The Chronicle in 2022, he served as an assistant managing editor and reporter for Education Week and the bureau chief of Chalkbeat Tennessee, a start-up news organization based in Memphis. He has worked as an education reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Louisville Courier Journal. He also worked as a general-assignment reporter at The Chicago Tribune. He received his undergraduate degree in print journalism from Hampton University and a master’s degree in politics and journalism from Columbia University. He currently takes acting classes at Studio Acting Conservatory and is a longtime fan of Black theater. Follow him on Twitter @Daarel.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here