Most have done so via statements, but the Royal Exchange in Manchester is doing it with actions and art via a reading of Katori Hall’s 2009 play, The Mountaintop, set in a Memphis hotel room occupied by Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination.
Introduced with real passion by Hall herself, and available on the theatre’s YouTube channel until Monday June 15, it’s a reimagining of Roy Alexander Weise’s 2016 Young Vic revival with donations welcomed to support Mid-South Peace and Justice Center’s Black Lives Matter Community Bail Fund and the Hideaway Manchester.
It begins with King wearily returning to his hotel room after delivering his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in support of a strike by black sanitation workers. He’s fearful for his life, a long way from home and he’s got a speech to write. There is a knock at the door, and it is the beautiful maid Camae who comes bearing the coffee he’s ordered, some strong opinions about direct action, a packet of fags but also some tidings that King may not want to hear.
Gbolahan Obisesan and Ronke Adekoluejo.
One of the pleasures of Hall’s play is what begins as an apparently naturalistic comedy in which King and Camae flirt and spar, and which reveals Kings as less saint than flawed man—he’s more than a touch vain and has a wandering eye—spirals into something more theatrically bold and politically urgent. As the weather outside gets ever more Biblical, Camae is revealed to be far more than she first appears.
As King and Camae, Gbolahan Obisesan and Ronke Adekoluejo reprise the roles they played at the Young Vic in 2016 and they are both very fine indeed in a play that turns on a sixpence and requires rapid shifts of tone and mood. The fact that they are not in the same physical space together inevitably detracts from the chemistry, and the format, which sits a little uneasily between the more dynamic possibilities of Zoom and a radio play, can be frustrating. But I can see why it’s been chosen because it comes with a terrific visual payoff in its closing moments as a collage of American history from Vietnam to Barrack Obama streams like a ribbon of time across the screen. It powerfully questions raised by the play about whether change is brought about by evolution or revolution, and just how long black people must wait for equality or justice.
Hall’s play, and Weise’s revival, offer a galvanising history lesson, a reminder that in 50 years how little has changed (look up what happened to 16-year-old Larry Payne), and serves as a rousing call to action. The baton has been passed down the years and and now is the time to ensure that the dream King had of standing on the mountaintop and seeing the promised land is achieved for all black people, everywhere.
The Mountaintop will be available to stream here until Mon 15 Jun.