By Wendy Carson
On April 3, 1968, the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by assassination, he gave one of his most famous speeches. Known as, “I have been to the Mountaintop”, it encourages people to wonder what would happen to them if they didn’t act in service to others, rather than what would happen to them if they did.
He speaks of traveling through history and witnessing numerous times of oppressed peoples overcoming their struggles. He reminds us of what we have already been through and how we can continue to overcome poverty and injustice by working together to support one another.
However, he also speaks about his near-death experience from a knife attack years earlier and how a mere sneeze could have killed him. He references the constant barrage of death threats that he endures each and every day. He acknowledges that he will not always be there to continue the fight for justice and equality. Yet, he assures us that he knows that what he has begun will continue on after he is gone.
This speech, its message, and King’s life are the inspirations for Katori Hall’s play, “The Mountaintop,” presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington.
King (Michael Aaron Pogue) retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to try and get some rest while working on his next speech. He sends a friend to get him some cigarettes to help with this mission. After calling down to the front desk for room service, his coffee is delivered by Camae (AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin), a beautiful maid on her first night of her new job. She also brings with her the next day’s paper. With the storm raging outside and his reluctance to be alone, the two engage in a spirited discussion of King’s life, the Civil Rights struggle, and the future.
Hall pulls no punches in portraying King as an honorable but flawed man. Pogue proudly shows us King’s many great achievements while also regretfully acknowledging his indiscretions and moral failings. He also shows us flashes of future inevitability in his panicked reactions to the claps of thunder which, sounding to him like gunshots, rattle King so.
Baskin shows Camae as a mater-of-fact woman who has no time or desire to mince words and always clearly speaks her mind. She manages to keep the character’s expletive-laden rants light yet never denies the meaning and power behind them. She also skillfully keeps Camae sympathetic once we learn the truth of who it is she is actually working for.
Director Ansley Valentine brings us a story that reminds us not just of the loss of a great leader for change but also that the struggle is not a sprint, but a relay race, and we are all responsible for our part in it. So, take up the baton, and see this show.
Performances run through March 20 at the Waldron Arts Center, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.