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Arts & Culture

Imagining MLK's Final Night In 'The Mountaintop'

A still from the filmed, staged production of Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," which will be streamed by Roustabouts Theatre Co, American History Theater and TYPA through May 16, 2021.
Courtesy of Roustabouts Theatre Co.
A still from the filmed, staged production of Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," which will be streamed by Roustabouts Theatre Co, American History Theater and TYPA through May 16, 2021.

Director Kandace Crystal tackles authenticity, flawed heroes and the power of collaboration with a filmed production of Katori Hall’s play.

In the first five minutes of "The Mountaintop," it's clear what director Kandace Crystal means when she talks about the pitfalls of heroes and pedestals.

The play begins its fictionalized portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with an exhausted, demanding, impatient man, on the last night before his assassination. The play is set after he delivers his final speech — which includes the famous and portentous line, "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."

Dr. King returns to his hotel room, is bossy with the hotel staff and you can even hear him urinating loudly in the toilet (offstage, thankfully). Actor Caiel Noble tackles Dr. King with wit, charm, trauma and impatience.

"Cigarettes and coffee? That ain't a diet befitting of a preacher," chides the hotel housekeeper, Camae, played by Ashley Graham, shortly before Dr. King himself tries to convince Camae to smoke a cigarette with her in the room, repeatedly commenting on how pretty she is.

"One thing dramaturg Kimberly King and I discussed in-depth is this deification of our heroes. Dr. King was put on this pedestal, and it was a situation where any wrong Dr. King did was magnified because of who he was. And I think it's really important as a community that we realize even our leaders will have flaws," Crystal said.

In reading playwright Katori Hall's Olivier award-winning script, Crystal gained a deeper respect for Dr. King. Crystal said she identifies with characters because of their flaws, not because they are perfect.

"It's not his job for me to hold him in this high esteem. He did his job. He pushed the movement forward," said Crystal. "It's my job to continue his work in my own way, and that has been a real crossover point for Kandace as an individual, realizing where I hold my heroes and the work that they've done."

"The Mountaintop" is a two-character, single-setting production — the action entirely takes place in a room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Hall wrote the play in 2009, but it's ideal for the filmed, staged productions of the pandemic era.

Ashley Graham performs as Camae from the play "The Mountaintop," streaming now from Roustabouts Theatre Co., American History Theater and TYPA.
Courtesy of Roustabouts Theatre Co.
Ashley Graham performs as Camae from the play "The Mountaintop," streaming now from Roustabouts Theatre Co., American History Theater and TYPA.

While the premise of the play attempts to anchor our attention on MLK and the historical significance of this moment, it's Camae who steals our hearts and brings out a certain honesty and humor in Dr. King. Crystal described Camae as deeply flawed, but the character's brightness and earnestness warms the entire script, and Graham's performance is impeccable, piercing and funny.

"I love Camae. Camae is an amalgamation of every woman I've ever known in this world, and she is sassy and fun and real," Crystal said.

Camae is more than a device by which Dr. King discovers some truth about himself — though that does happen. She's a singular and independent character and source of wisdom.

"I love that she is not afraid of just telling someone who is this grandiose being about himself, calling him out for his cheating, for example, telling him he's just a civil rights leader," Crystal said. "This is a show that when you're done watching, you see humanity and you see someone who really was just trying to change the world for the better. Despite being flawed."

Director Kandace Crystal in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Roustabouts Theatre Co.
Director Kandace Crystal in an undated photo.

Crystal is a force in San Diego theater, recently sought after by Coronado Playhouse to produce "Harlem Duet," and is artistic director of American History Theater, and associate artistic director of Trinity Theatre Company.

The cast and the majority of the crew are people of color, with a wide generational range — Crystal said the majority of the team were under the age of 30. "Everyone says in San Diego there's no Black actors, there's no one I can find for the roles. And here I have an impeccable group of folks who got to meet each other and network with each other and tell their stories authentically," Crystal said.

She secured the streaming rights for "The Mountaintop" for American History Theater after searching for a small cast show centered on the Black experience, then paired up with Roustabouts and Teenage Youth Performing Arts Theatre Company (TYPA) to pull it off.

"If there's anything this pandemic has taught the theater community is that we're stronger together," Crystal said. "I think that this is an opportunity where we can breed mentorship opportunities, as well as having companies who do really great work on that shoestring budget make it happen on that bigger budget and working with people who are really going to put their money where their mouth is."

"The Mountaintop" screens Saturdays and Sundays through May 16, with a $25 ticket purchase granting streaming access for the entire day.