The word "icon" is thrown around too much these days, but Katori Hall’s drama The Mountaintop is about a true American icon, civil rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on the evening before his assassination at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
Despite King’s importance in American history, the play is not intended as a sober historical document along the lines of Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma. Depicting an entirely fictional encounter between King and a motel maid named Camae, there is an element of fancy to what might otherwise be seen as a grim last-night-on-earth premise.
That presumably will inject a little light into the drama, which will be streamed by the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre beginning Feb. 26 to March 14. More light: the show will offer theatregoers a virtual return to the RMTC mainstage, where the roles of King and Camae will be played by Winnipeg actors Ray Strachan and Cherissa Richards, directed by RMTC’s associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer.
For Strachan, who won the first ever Winnipeg Theatre Award for best actor for his work in the 2018 Winnipeg Jewish Theatre production of The Whipping Man, that might help mitigate some of the pressure to play this seminal figure, which was challenging enough.
"I’m a very visual person," Strachan says. "So I’m blessed to be able to go onto YouTube and watch the man preach, watch his nuances, watch how he walks, watch how he moves."
King’s mellifluous vocal style wasn’t required for the play, since it takes place behind the scenes of King’s public persona.
"To be honest, I don’t get to do the MLK preaching voice very often in this play," Strachan say. "That’s kind of taken away.
"MLK is kind of taken off his pedestal in this particular play, so I kind of get to experiment and research and try and figure out what he sounded like behind the scenes," Strachan says. "I find it challenging that way."
The role of Camae — a maid with a startling secret — allowed Richards a more playful role. While it’s not strictly historical, it is rooted in the playwright’s own life.
"Camae" is an abbreviation of Katori Hall’s mother’s name, Carrie Mae, who, as a young girl, was forbidden from seeing King’s "mountaintop" speech in Memphis because her mother feared the location might be bombed.
"Both of these characters are larger than life, yet Camae is not all that she seems," Richards says. "So I think it’s a fun thing to carry throughout the play.
"The playwright has done a really great job of simply finding out who these people are as human beings," Richards says. "I think she has really been able to unearth the man inside the myth and I think she’s really explored Camae that way as well.
"She wrote from her own experience. Her family lived near where MLK made this famous speech on this famous ‘mountaintop’ night. Her grandmother wouldn’t let her mother go to the speech, so it’s very close to her heart," Richards says. "This story is embroiled in her DNA."
The play has weathered some controversy since it portrays King as a man and not a saint. Director Audrey Dwyer defends that choice.
"Katori Hall has written a very brilliant sketch of him and she’s really asking us to see him as a human as opposed to an icon," Dwyer says. "So for me, it was very important for me to think about the difference between who he is in public and who he is in private."
PTE audio tales draw on Winnipeg historyClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Feb. 24, 2021
When we meet 89-year-old Lillian Gibbons in Stories Houses Tell, a new audio work from local playwright Ellen Peterson, she is in a boat on the Amazon, struggling to write a letter before she dies. “I’m having trouble with words,” Lillian confesses. This isn’t just a source of frustration for her, but pain.
"The play shares a very particular moment of time for him," Dwyer says. "It’s really an exploration in a conversation on all of our parts in terms of how to craft a piece that is about one’s humanity.
"I’ve never had a ride with a character quite like this, going from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and going back to the highest of highs again," says Strachan. "It’s very fulfilling as a Black actor, to be able to go into my culture like this.
"It’s fulfilling, it’s exciting, it’s challenging," he says. "I feel blessed to be able to do this."
Tickets for The Mountaintop are $20 (plus GST) and are available at royalmtc.ca.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.