In April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr went to Memphis. He made a speech about how, having survived an assassination attempt, he was not afraid of death. He had ‘been to the mountaintop’. The next day, he was shot dead on the balcony of his motel.
Sosa is superb: enthusiastic but reverent, joyful but deeply sad. Her tears are real and we very nearly join her.
Katori Hall’s Olivier award-winning play asks what happened that evening, after the speech but before the shooting. We see King in room 306 preparing points for the next day’s sermon, shouting for cigarettes and cowering at the sound of thunder. Into this walks a maid, Camae, who brings him late night coffee. It quickly transpires that Camae is not all that she seems: she smokes prestigious Pall Malls, treats King to a Black Panther-style oration and claims that she has spoken to God, who is apparently a woman. Is she a maid, an activist or something else entirely?
As the doomed civil rights hero, Mark M. Cryer gives an assured performance. His default demeanour is one of gentle ministerial respect but he conveys the nuances of King’s character well – he was a notorious womaniser and the early exchanges with Kiana Sosa’s Camae have an unmistakable and uncomfortable sexual tension. As the play progresses and Camae forces King to face up to who and what he really is, Cryer can get his teeth into moments of fiery anger and anguish. Sosa is superb: enthusiastic but reverent, joyful but deeply sad. Her tears are real and we very nearly join her.
That we don’t is somewhat instructive. The acting is impeccable in isolation but, when together, Cryer and Sosa never quite have the onstage spark needed to make the piece truly great. The play takes a slightly unexpected turn for the spiritual towards its conclusion and the production doesn’t quite know how to handle it – some moments are played with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, others are totally straight. Cryer also directs and he does so with a subtlety that is highly respectful of the source material. There isn’t anything mind-blowingly original in the production concept, but it’s perfectly functional and, given that this is significantly longer than a typical Fringe play, it never really drags.
Cryer’s The Mountain Top is a fine production of a fine play. It doesn’t quite hit all of its intended emotional resonances, but its intentions are admirable and its passion is clear.