Rosebud Theatre’s, The Mountaintop, emotional impact
by Laureen F. Guenther
The Mountaintop, a play about Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth, opened at Rosebud Theatre, September 13. It runs until October 19.
Playwright Katori Hall gives us an imagined look at Martin Luther King’s last hours. A maid comes to his room late at night, but it turns out she’s bringing much more than room service. She’s been sent to help Martin Luther King prepare for his death.
Ray Strachan of Winnipeg plays the role of Martin Luther King. Patricia Cerra of Edmonton plays Camae, the maid. These two give exceptional performances, perhaps the most emotionally powerful theatrical performances I’ve ever seen. Early on, King and Camae’s dialogue is mostly slow-moving banter, and I wondered if anything would ever happen. But it soon builds into something challenging and hard-hitting. Even before Camae delivers her shocking message, we see King’s frail humanity, and he copes with exhaustion, frustration and fear. His image as a Christian pastor and conquering hero is wiped away.
When Camae gives him information that no one on earth could know, and he begins to face the imminent end of his life, his questions for her – and for God – are heart-wrenching.
As we watched King respond to his agonizing, impending sorrow, I had the sense that we in the audience were being hit by an emotional tsunami. Someone seated near me wept for much of the last half hour. Even more remarkably, the story’s emotional impact seemed to fall just as heavily on the actors.
My companion and I were seated too near the front to fully appreciate the set of a 60s-era motel room, but we could fully experience the light and sound design. When light and sound create the sensation of a thunderstorm, I was sure King and Camae were soaking wet. And after a snowfall, a rare but historic event in Memphis the night before King died, I believed Camae really did have snow in her hair.
This production uses projection near the end of the play, possibly for the first time at Rosebud Theatre, and its images continue to carry us over the emotional arc of the story, conveying the life that will go on after King’s passing. They wash over us with the tremendous amount of injustice still to be overcome, the stumbling progress of anti-racism efforts, and the ongoing hope that, one day, things will truly be better for humanity.
Several days later, I’m still processing The Mountaintop’s impact on me. It isn’t a happy play, nor is it an easy play. But it is an important play, perhaps even a crucial play. It’s about serving out a calling, even at great sacrifice. It’s about surrendering all the potential and all the results of that service to God. And it’s a cautionary tale that our private sins aren’t justified by public victories.
Yet, it’s also about glory to God, and how He does amazing good through us who are frail and broken, but willing. It’s about how He’s looking for workers who are brave and determined enough to do His hardest, most necessary work.
The story of The Mountaintop takes place in April 1968, more than 50 years ago, but its questions and its passion aren’t mere throwbacks to the 1960s. For you and me in the troubled times of 2019, Martin Luther King’s questions about faithfulness and legacy, love and despair, eternity and mortality, are still the questions our hearts often whisper, even when we’re not listening.
The Mountaintop plays at Rosebud Theatre’s Opera House until October 19. Tickets, which include a meal, can be purchased at rosebudtheatre.com or 1-800-267-7553.