Theatre Preview: A Look at Martin Luther King After The Mountaintop

Black Theatre Workshop and Neptune Theatre Give Insight on the Private Life of King

(left to right) Letitia Brookes and Tristan D. Lalla onstage for The Mountaintop. Courtesy Andrée Lanthier

Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as a great leader during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, having moved many with his powerful speeches and peaceful protests. But not much is known about him behind closed doors, at least in public conversation.

The Mountaintop, presented by Black Theatre Workshop in collaboration with Neptune Theatre, was written by award-winning playwright Katori Hall. It is a fictional account of the last evening of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life before his assassination.

It takes place in 1968, in a room of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was staying after delivering his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech.

Directed by Toronto-based artistic director and theatre producer ahdri zhina mandiela, this play is a deep look into King’s private life.

mandiela hopes to prompt an important dialogue about the legacy and purpose of King and what it means in the present day.

“He had a dream, and his dream was about all of us dreaming and working together,” she says. “I really see [Martin Luther King Jr.] as an ally in that dreaming we need to do today.”

mandiela also added that she thinks the story is important to be experienced today.

The parallels between the past and the present of civil rights are apparent throughout the play thanks in large part to the set decor.

“Part of the setting is a motel room from 1968, and behind the motel room, you’re looking at the exterior of Montreal,” said set and costume designer Eo Sharp who used the Segal Centre’s studio’s glass wall as part of the backdrop.

The play has a cast of two. Letitia Brookes, who plays the role of Camae, an intriguing housekeeper, says that “a lot of things that come up [in the play] like racism, sexism, even ageism, are things that are still relevant today.”

King is played by Montreal English Theatre Award nominee Tristan D. Lalla. Lalla is also Brookes’ husband.

“He had a dream, and his dream was about all of us dreaming and working together. I really see [Martin Luther King Jr.] as an ally in that dreaming we need to do today.” – ahdri zhina mandiela

“This play is amazing because it takes away all these iconic images and thoughts that people have of the man and it really humanizes Martin Luther King Jr.” Lalla said. “Maybe he doesn’t do the right things all the time, he smokes, he doesn’t wash his hands when he goes to the bathroom, maybe he has holes in his socks.”

The play is a zoom-in on a specific night, at a specific place and the audience is invited to see King beyond the camera lights and memorable speeches. We become witnesses of his torments, insecurities, and intimacy.

Lalla admits that it had been a challenge for him to take his own thoughts away of King, to effectively remove him from a pedestal. He had to think of King as a real person, a person who tried his best to change the world and eventually give his life in the process.

In the play, the engaging bond between King and Camae is rooted in seduction and mystery.

“It’s a rare blessing to get to share something like this with the most important person in your life,” Lalla said. “There are tons of nuances that we don’t have to teach or discover.”

The pair saw the play together for the first time a few years ago and immediately loved it.

Letitia Brookes and Tristan D. Lalla onstage for The Mountaintop. Courtesy Andrée Lanthier

“At the end of the show we both said ‘Ah, it would be such a dream to be able to do this show one day,’” Brookes said. After four weeks of rehearsal for The Mountaintop, their wish came true.

“This is the best and the hardest role I’ve had so far in my career,” said Brookes. “I see parts of me in [Camae], but there’s so much about her that is different from me. She’s very feisty, very blunt, tells it like it is, and she doesn’t care too much.”

Brookes said that ahdri and Lalla pushed her every day to really get out of her shell in order to bring her character to life.

“I know what makes her tick. I know what makes her smile. If there’s a moment where I need to push and make her angry or make her laugh, I know some tricks,” Lalla said with a hearty laugh.

Backed by contemporary injustices and racial tension, this play’s overall aim is to keep the fight going.

“There’s a continuous theme in the show of passing on the baton,” Lalla says. “Whether it’s handed to you, or whether you take it and run with it, you have a choice and you have a responsibility,”

Martin Luther King Jr. may have died half a century ago, but the battle he fought so hard against is still raging on.

The Mountaintop // October 14th to 29th // Segal Center for Performing Arts (5170 Côte-Sainte-Catherine) // $24 for students // $29 general admission

With files from Julia Miele