UCCS’ production of “The Mountaintop” was not at all what I expected.
The show reimagines Martin Luther King Jr.’s (Calvin M. Thompson) last night on Earth in a motel room in Tennessee, when he is visited by Camae (Marisa Hebert), a brand-new angel who has been sent to bring him home.
The show shows a more personal side of King, a man who smokes Pall Malls and lies to his wife about drinking tea for his throat. Camae comes in the form of a maid who brings him coffee, jokes about life and criticizes his civil rights techniques. Soon, however, her true identity is revealed, and her mission to ensure that Dr. King doesn’t die alone.
The show is rather heavy handed in its message. Camae shows the reverend images of the future while chanting “the baton passes on.” It is left to the audience to pick up this baton, and to continue the fight that King was unable to.
In a more effective technique, Thompson as King takes the pulpit on the balcony of the motel and preaches directly to the audience. This engages them with the dialogue the play is attempting to create. Unfortunately, most of the scenes of this type are less subtle.
The play also is adamant in its theology. In it, God is a woman whose angels are newly deceased humans trying to save their souls with one final deed, and heaven is merely a phone call away. God uses a cellphone to communicate with her servants, and is “out of the office” when she needs to solve problems on Earth. God has also said that she would marry King if possible, and that he is one of her favorites. These choices, made for humor at times and to be subversive at others, detract from the play as a whole and feel incredibly out of place. It it is as if the play is taking on too much at once, detracting from its substance.
In taking the legend away from MLK, the play also removes much of the mystery and power of the almighty in an effort to humanize that which is not human. When you take away the grandeur of a man, that helps you to understand him. But when you also remove the grandeur of his god, that essentially puts them at the same level, and deifies the man while dishonoring his beliefs. This runs counter to the teachings of King and his namesake Martin Luther. The concepts of humble obedience and faith are not on display here, and are contradicted as the man is treated as a special favorite of God, who has earned special perks. That message feels dishonest to King’s theology and preaching.
In its heavy handedness, the play loses much of its power. The audience isn’t given the opportunity to draw their own conclusions or to be inspired individually, and thus are not left with much to digest after the show is over. Each message is spoon-fed to the audience, but with so many different opinions to take in, none of them stands out as important. By attempting to make the moral simple, and incorporate several points, the play becomes both confusing and simplistic.
The staging and technical aspects of the play are perfect. The show takes place in a storm, and the thunder is perfectly timed to have thematic resonance. The lighting works to the same effect, conveying meaning with every color and spotlight. The props are perfect for the time period and add to the overall suspension of disbelief. When the play ends in a final blackout, the audience is shocked silent.
Thompson and Hebert weren’t perfect in their performances. The two stuttered over some of their lines, and sometimes seemed uncertain in their actions. However, it didn’t distract from the play as a whole, and the two were very convincing in their assumed identities. Seeing Thompson struggle with grief as King prepares to lose his own life, I believed him, and nearly wept with him.
UCCS gave “The Mountaintop” every tool it needed to succeed. Nevertheless, the show still managed to miss its mark.