Martin Luther King Day is coming up this month. And while many organizations will celebrate the civil rights leader with speeches and commemorative marches, Faceoff Theatre and Kalamazoo College are showing a different side of Dr. King.
The theatres will collaborate on the play “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall Thursday through Saturday at Kalamazoo College's Festival Playhouse.
"The Mountaintop" is a fictional account of the last 24 hours of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life. All of it takes place in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel where King was assassinated. There are only two characters - King and a hotel maid named Camae.
The play shows a different Martin Luther King - not the activist, but the guy who smoked, cursed, and occasionally lost his temper. Since it premiered in 2009, the play has been pretty popular. Award-winning actors Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett performed it on Broadway five years ago.
But not everyone is a fan of Katori Hall’s portrayal of King. Bianca Washington is the stage manager for Kalamazoo’s production. She says some people don’t want to see their heroes in that light.
“'I don’t want to hear these kinds of things. I don’t want to see things kinds of things about Martin Luther King Jr., you know?' But it just…what I would hope is that it opens people’s heart more to who this person was. He was a person,” she says.
Los Angeles actor and Western Michigan University alum Kenajuan Bentley is playing the role of Dr. King.
“We see him exhausted. We see him a little battling illness, sickness. Longing for his family. Longing for someone, some sort of connection outside of Ralph Abernathy and the crew that always followed him around,” says Bentley.
That’s where Camae comes in. Tanisha Pyron plays the spunky, down-to-earth hotel maid. Pyron says Camae represents the people Dr. King advocated for - not just African Americans, but workers too:
“I think that she really is a cross-section of a lot of populations that he served. And it’d kind of be like President Obama came into town. And it’s not a town hall meeting, it’s like you’re sitting in his office and you can ask him a question. Those are the kind of questions that she’s asking. And to see him affected by her humanity as well is something that I think is really touching about this piece.”
The title of the play comes from the last speech that King gave before he was assassinated, called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Bianca Washington says the speech is almost chilling. In it, King seems to say that his part in the civil rights movement - and maybe his life - is coming to an end.
“’I’ve been to the top of the mountain.’ This is it! When you go to the top of the mountain, that’s all you have - you’re there! Unless you get in a spaceship and flying up to the stars, you know what I’m saying. But he’s at the mountaintop, he’s at the end,” says Washington.
Washington says it was King’s way of passing the baton, leaving ordinary people to take up his cause. And Tanisha Pyron says that’s what Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” is all about.
“Lead a movement or do something great," says Pyron. "You don’t have to be a deity to be impactful in the world. And for me it was really inspiring and I hope that it inspires others as well.”
You can see “The Mountaintop” at K-College’s Nelda K. Balch Festival Playhouse Thursday through Sunday. Performances will be followed by community discussions.