There may not be two more disparate theater productions than the ones Dallas Theater Center currently has playing at the same time. Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical is a bawdy and cheese-tastic homage to the pun-filled TV show, and it’s filled with almost entirely white faces.
The Mountaintop, on the other hand, is an intimate reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one that asks how much King accomplished in his lifetime and how far America still has to go in regards to race relations.
Set entirely in King’s room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination, the fictional play finds King (Hassan El-Amin) anxiously anticipating his next speech. A request for coffee brings a motel maid named Camae (Tiana Kaye Johnson) to his room, a visit that proves both fateful and illuminating for the civil rights leader.
An allegorical account of King’s last hours alive, the play shows King as both a strong and vulnerable individual. Playwright Katori Hall emphasizes King’s charm and oratorical skills while also not shying away from his faults, including a predilection toward smoking and a reputation as a womanizer.
It gradually becomes clear that Camae is more than just a maid, though who she is and what her agenda may be is best left a mystery. What can be said is that her intensity and knowledge is a match for that of King's, something that alternately amuses, frustrates, and intrigues him the longer they spend together.
With the surfeit of racially tinged events in the United States the last few years, a play like The Mountaintop resonates more than ever. At once a historical account of King’s work in the 1960s and an exploration of the broader impact it had, the play posits that, while some of King’s dreams may have come to fruition, many more have yet to be achieved.
Under the direction of Akin Babatunde and scenic designer Bob Lavallee, DTC has put together a faithful recreation of King’s room at the motel, right down to the wood paneling on the wall. While perhaps not completely necessary, it does help set the mood, as it’s easy to imagine the balcony where he was shot just a few steps outside the door.
A member of the Brierly Resident Acting Company, El-Amin delivers a solid performance as King. While not as memorable as his turns in Driving Miss Daisy or Clybourne Park, El-Amin still does justice to the memory of King without being swallowed up by the responsibility of playing him.
Johnson, an MFA candidate at SMU, is even better than she was in DTC’s The Book Club Play. In fact, because hers is actually the showier of the two roles, there are many times when she outshines El-Amin. One particular standout is a monologue in which she both copies and mocks King’s speaking style; it’s a wow moment that she plays for all it's worth.
The Mountaintop isn’t quite as powerful as it could be, probably owing to the small nature of its story. But as a tribute to King and a contemplation of his life’s work, it’s still a compelling production that once again proves the versatility of Dallas Theater Center and its actors.
The Mountaintop will play in the Studio Theatre at Wyly Theatre through November 15.