WASHINGTON (AP) — A Memphis motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 45 years ago has been transported to the city where the civil rights hero led his March on Washington.
A new production of the award-winning Broadway play “The Mountaintop” opened Thursday night at Arena Stage for a five-week run, reimagining the night before King’s death in 1968. It’s meant to bring the mythic figure into human scale, revealing King’s wisdom, weaknesses and doubts. It mixes fiction with reality, including a look at King’s heavy smoking.
The play opened on Broadway in 2011 starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as a motel maid who visits King at his motel room. The show also won an Oliver award in London for best new play. It’s gone on to become one of the most produced plays nationwide this season.
The Washington production stars Bowman Wright as King and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae, the maid. It looks different than the Broadway play, Director Robert O’Hara said, because he sought to cast actors of the right age. King was just 39 when he died. So the flirting between King and his female caller feels different.
O’Hara said he was excited to bring his version of the play to Washington after a previous run in Houston.
“I’ve been thinking about the fact that it’s the 45th anniversary of King’s death on the day we’re opening — and that we’ve just inaugurated for the second time our first black president,” O’Hara said.
Playwright Katori Hall, a native of Memphis, Tenn., started writing the play in 2007 and was a resident playwright at Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute through the end of 2012. “The Mountaintop” has proven an important breakthrough for the young writer.
Even though it’s set just before King’s death, the audience may be surprised at how much they laugh at the dialogue between King and his female caller. It makes for a powerful but light-hearted way to experience King’s legacy, O’Hara said.
“Very often we don’t see plays about black icons, and when we do, they are sort of glamor shots of icons,” he said. “I think it’s always important to examine the people we hold high so that we can compare them to who we are.”
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