REVIEW: New Davenport Mockingbird Theater Scales Thrilling Mountain in Debut
One of the absolute thrilling joys of theater is not only how it brings fictional characters to life, but illuminates the intimately human struggles and triumphs of well-known, real-life icons. The Quad-Cities premiere of “The Mountaintop” – an emotional, haunting reimagining of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth – is an extraordinary example.
The 90-minute, two-person Katori Hall play debuted Thursday night at the new Mockingbird on Main, a beautiful, 40-seat cabaret at 320 N. Main St., Davenport, created by Tristan Tapscott and Savannah Bay Strandin. The mood before the enlightening, roller-coaster production was rightly celebratory and it was exciting to see such passion for a new venture, on stage and off.
“The Mountaintop” – named for the famed speech King gave in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968 – is smartly, tautly directed by Kira Rangel and stars Anthony Hendricks as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Erica Faye Toney as Camae, the enigmatic maid, who both give full-throated, deeply sympathetic portrayals. There is no intermission.
In 1968, King was in Memphis to speak out on the behalf of the sanitation workers who went on strike regarding the death of two workers crushed by a malfunctioning truck. The workers dealt with continuous mistreatment and denial of their civil rights. A week before his assassination,
King led a demonstration through downtown Memphis which resulted in the death of one reporter as well as a multitude of injuries and property damages. The 39-year-old civil rights leader fought to improve both the pay and working conditions of the sanitation workers, demanding economic and human rights.
The play references Larry Payne, who was a 16-year old African-American killed by a police officer following a march in support of the Memphis sanitation strike on March 28, 1968. King wants to ensure that Payne’s death was not in vain and the entirety of “The Mountaintop” takes place in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, during a literally stormy night when he is working on writing a new speech.
The real-life “Mountaintop” speech (which isn’t quoted in the play) concluded – ““We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.
But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.
“And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
At the play’s start, Hendricks as King is clearly tired, frustrated and suspicious that his motel room may be bugged. “America is going to hell,” he writes in his little black book, testing out his lines aloud. “America, you are too arrogant.”
King had sent his friend to get him cigarettes, ultimately leaving him alone in Room 306, and after ordering room service, King meets the feisty, sassy Camae (Carrie Mae), a mysterious and beautiful maid who immediately catches King’s often wandering eye (he was a known womanizer).
The electric interactions between the two are filled with flirtation and humor, but through the night it progresses to something much deeper. King and Camae begin to discuss the hopes and fears that he’s been feeling, forming a close connection and understanding between the two. Like most leaders, we learn that King was deeply flawed and human, and Hendricks pulls back the curtain to show us his vulnerabilities, foibles and fears.
We don’t think of Martin Luther King as necessarily funny, but there are many, many sweet and funny moments in “The Mountaintop,” chiefly among the good-natured banter and ribbing between Hendricks and Toney. We learn that King has stinky feet and Camae fearlessly stands up to him, arguing, cajoling, and bringing him down off his lofty pedestal.
Toney has a standout speech where she embodies a preacher, in King’s jacket, with a booming, confident voice. King has a dream for sure, but he also has many nightmares, and “The Mountaintop” bravely wrestles with them.
“He was selfless, loving, and wanted something so small such as fairness, to be treated equal,” Toney said before the show. “This story tells
the good, bad, and the ugly, but that’s what makes it special. He was a real human being, but to us, he was a real hero.”
“Absolutely nothing has changed. Injustices against African-Americans are still taking place today,” she said. “It looks like he died for nothing. But that’s where we come in at, and that’s why we teach our children and the children after them the golden rule — treat others the way you want to be treated. We just have to continue to fight and tell stories to make sure his martyrdom was not in vain.”
The tumultuous conversation between the real-life civil rights leader and fictional maid focuses on the bitter, brutal, exhausting fight for civil rights and reaches a climax when Camae reveals her true intentions for walking into King’s motel room that night. The dreamlike rest of the play
is an imaginative flight of fancy, painfully rooted in the reality of King’s assassination the next day outside his second-floor motel room – at the same age that Malcolm X (another fiery civil rights leader) was gunned down in February 1965.
King clearly feared for his life in the days before his death, and the play reveals how much he wanted to live and had yet to accomplish. While a video montage toward the end displays some of the fights and accomplishments that followed in the decades since, “The Mountaintop” shows how much work there really is left undone. Hendricks as King asks at one point why white
people hate Blacks, noting “They hate so easily and we love too much.”
In the face of persistent violence, he says, “Love is the most radical weapon there is.” In a mesmerizing, inspiring postscript, Hendricks comes down off the small stage and exhorts us in the audience to pick up the baton and continue King’s long struggle for civil rights.
Another thing we learn from the play is King’s given first name was Michael – born in 1929. His father Michael King (also a Baptist pastor and civil rights leader in Atlanta) traveled to Germany in 1934 and was inspired by
the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, so he changed his name and his five-year-old son’s name in tribute.
American playwright Katori Hall is a 40-year-old Memphis native, and “The Mountaintop” premiered in London in 2009 to great critical acclaim. After a sellout run at Theatre503, the play transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End. The play won the Olivier award for Best New Play in March 2010, making Hall the first black woman to achieve this accolade. The Mountaintop opened on Broadway starring Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King and Angela Bassett as Camae.
Since 1991, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (greatly expanded upon) has served as the outstanding National Civil Rights Museum, which shares the culture and lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement and explores how this significant era continues to shape equality and freedom globally. In 2013-14, it underwent a $27.5-million renovation, adding more than 40 new films, oral histories and interactive media to the already
In June 2021, Hall earned the Pulitzer Prize in drama for “The Hot Wing King,” set in her hometown of Memphis. It follows a black gay couple and their extended family as they prepare recipes for competition in the city’s annual hot-wing festival. In announcing the award, the Pulitzer Prize board called the play “a funny, deeply felt consideration of black masculinity and how it is perceived.” Speaking last year to Harvard Magazine, just after the pandemic had shuttered the production early, Hall said, “With this play, I wanted to embrace the articulation of black life and not necessarily black trauma, so the piece is infused with joy and love and
That is equally as true in “The Mountaintop.” The Mockingbird’s mission is to “provide an inclusive, collaborative, safe, and innovative environment where through the presentation of a variety of classic, contemporary, and original works, our artists can be inspired to expand the collective understanding of ourselves, the world at large and, most importantly, our collective humanity,” according to themockingbirdonmain.com.
“We are thrilled to be starting this new adventure with a piece like this and to be able to feature these artists,” co-producer Tristan Tapscott said. His partner, co-producer Savannah Bay Strandin added, “When I first saw ‘The Mountaintop’ several years ago, I was moved beyond words. It is a stunning piece and I am overjoyed that this is our inaugural production.”
Here is to a long life for The Mockingbird, a welcome addition for both area artists and audiences. “The Mountaintop” will play The Mockingbird On Main’s downtown Davenport venue at 8 p.m. Friday, July 30, Saturday, July 31, and Aug. 5, 6, and 7. Doors open to the public nightly at 7:30 p.m.
Seating is at tables of four, and reservations can be made for $15 at Eventbrite.