Christina Wright

Climbing “The Mountaintop” at the Milwaukee Rep

In Katori Hall's play, Martin Luther King meets a pretty motel maid on the eve of his assassination.

By - Sep 29th, 2012 01:06 pm
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J Bernard Calloway as Martin Luther King, in the Milwaukee Rep’s “The Mountaintop.” Michael Brosilow photo for the Rep.

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop begins with Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech of the same name booming over an empty set.

The set fills the valley between two sets of bleachers in the Milwaukee Rep‘s Stiemke Studio, the perfect setting for Hall’s intimate conception of King’s last night on Earth. We peer into room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on the eve of King’s assassination. Designer Lee Savage has crafted a remarkably realistic 1960’s motel room, complete with dingy carpeting, faded coral duvets on the beds, black rotary phone, even a bathroom with a tube of toothpaste and water-stained ceiling. A steady rain falls just outside the door (a wonderful special effect).

In this setting, it’s difficult to imagine King atop that mountain of his dreams. When he enters, J Bernard Calloway’s King could be any business traveler who’s been on the road for too long. He toys with a speech he’s to deliver the next day. He becomes frustrated with himself – and with America. We see him as a regular person. He urinates. He calls his wife. He sings “Pick up, Coretta” as the phone rings. He removes his shoes, laments the stink of his feet and the holes in his socks. He’s trying to unwind, but he’s restless.

Soon, Camae arrives. Nikiya Mathis plays the pretty and outspoken motel maid. She brings him a cup of coffee. He practically begs her for a cigarette. They light up their very real Pall Malls (the smoke rises into the audience and tickles the nostrils).

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Nikiya Mathis as Camae in Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop.” Michael Brosilow photo for the Milwaukee Rep.

Calloway and Mathis are perfect in their roles. Calloway, tall and with a football player’s build, fills the room with his commanding presence and booming voice. He embodies King’s many emotions and his internal struggle, confident in one moment and reduced to tears the next. The petite and energetic Mathis bounces and dances about the stage. She constantly speaks her mind, sometimes in colorful language for which she apologizes profusely.

She enters almost as a giggly a teenager excited to meet the famous preacher. He knows how famous he is at that moment in time. Calloway has King use his prestige to openly flirt with the young Camae. They spar and banter back and forth, vacillating from serious subjects to comic interludes to unforeseen flights of fancy. King and Camae and Calloway and Mathis have true chemistry together, effortless and never forced. That chemistry extends to the audience. You could just feel the audience hold its collective breath at tense moments, hear it laughing hysterically at others — and see it shed tears as the end of the play.

The Mountaintop runs through Nov. 4. Visit the Rep’s website for showtimes and tickets ($25-$40), or call 414-224-9490.

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Categories: A/C Feature 3, Theater

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