On the night of April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had a severe case of stinky feet.
While the historical record is silent on that matter, that pungent factoid is on full olfactory display in “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s 2009 play that runs Thursday Feb. 17 through Sunday Feb. 20, at City Repertory Theatre in Palm Coast.
MLK, the play imagines, came down with stink foot as he returned to the Lorriane Motel in Memphis that night after standing and addressing hundreds of people packed into the Bishop Charles Mason Temple.
The historical record reports that King, exhausted and suffering a sore throat, had initially bowed out of his scheduled talk in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers, and he asked his friend and fellow Civil Rights fighter Ralph Abernathy to take his place. But, as Abernathy took the podium, he sensed the palpable disappointment of the crowd. Abernathy hastily called King and convinced him to rush to the temple and speak.
Following a standing ovation upon his arrival, King spoke extemporaneously, preacherly, prophetically: He had “been to the mountaintop,” he said. He “would like to live a long life” but he wasn’t concerned about that. He had seen the promised land but told his audience he may not get there with them – but that “we, as a people” would get there. He feared no man, he said. He had “seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
His address would come to be known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. (Hear it in full here.)
The next day – April 4, 1968 – King would be shot to death, assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by James Ear Ray, a white supremacist and escaped convict.
But Hall’s two-person play imagines – key word: imagines — King during his last night on earth, as a pretty motel maid named Camae visits him to deliver room service and finds the civil rights icon in a very un-glorious state indeed: Smokin’. Cussin’. Drinkin’. Flirting. Stinky feet. (Alleged revelations about King’s private life by one of his most important biographers caused considerable controversy.)
A common interview question of arts and entertainment writers is to ask actors to describe their characters, the better to go beyond any official play synopsis and gain insights on how a performer is approaching his-her performance. That typical question seems absurd when the “character” in question is Martin Luther King. But Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” which premiered in London and won the prestigious Olivier Award for Best Play before opening on Broadway in 2011, is hardly a typical drama.
“The play takes place in the Lorraine Motel room the night before King is shot,” says Brent Jordan, a Palm Coast resident who, following star turns in City Rep’s “Hand to God,” “Actually” and other plays, portrays MLK. “Martin is coming in exhausted. As to the character, it’s just who he is when the camera and the crowds are not there. It’s how he is when he takes off his shoes and unties his tie. It really shows the personal — the man behind everything.”
“Katori Hall describes him as an everyman,” says CRT co-founder and director John Sbordone. “He is depicted warts and all, she says. And that’s true. In the opening scene, he’s coming in coughing, smoking. He’s exhausted. He talks about his feet stinking. That’s one of the ongoing jokes of the play – his stinky feet. There’s holes in his socks. He’s smoking. He’s constantly looking for Pall Malls – ‘Pal Mals.’ ”
Phillipa Rose, a South Daytona resident and City Rep veteran whose credits include “Title of Show, “Urinetown” and David Mamet’s “Race,” portrays Camae.
“Camae is a maid, but in the context of the show she represents all of Martin’s vices,” Rose says. “All of the kind of . . . ugly. She’s the pretty woman who tempts him. She gives him his cigarettes because that’s his vice. She gives him alcohol – that’s his vice. She cusses in front of him. She’s a representation of all of these things.”
It’s unlikely that theater-goers will view “The Mountaintop” as more outrageous than that notorious scene in the 2002 comedy film “Barbershop,” in which the character Eddie, with his unfiltered tongue, proclaims “Martin Luther King was a ho (whore)” – a crude reference to MLK’s documented extramarital affairs.
Still, Sbordone frets that older theater patrons, especially African Americans who were alive during MLK’s lifetime, may not stick around for the entirety of the play (which was brought to his attention by Rose) and see there is a method to Hall’s madness.
“Coming from the generation I come from, I’m looking at this play for the first time and I said ‘Holy shit, are people — actually, are older Black men and women — going to stay?’ ” Sbordone says. “Some people might get pissed off seeing what goes on between King and Camae before they find out” more about their relationship.
Hollywood filmmakers, playwrights and novelists who seek to portray historic personages or events in a semi-fictional or a “based on a real story” way, or even in realistic, quasi-documentary way, open themselves to criticisms for taking liberties with the truth or distorting history. Might some observers claim “The Mountaintop,” which doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, nonetheless distorts MLK’s legacy, however obvious its fictional nature?
“I can see where people would get that idea,” Rose says. “But are we distorting the truth or are we distorting the idea that was portrayed to you by history? Are we taking a full historical picture of who Martin Luther King was, or are we looking at who he could have been as a man behind closed doors?”
“Everything that is covered in this play when it comes to his past, everything like that is factually true,” Jordan says. “There is nothing that is being embellished when it comes to those past events. The play is ‘What is the hypothetical if you could see Martin behind closed doors? What would be the man behind Martin?’”
While Jordan has prepped for his portrayal by watching videos of MLK, the better to approach the Southern-bred, preacherly rhythms and cadences of King’s speech, he is not attempting to imitate the civil rights leader.
Sbordone notes that the goal is to capture some of the “iconic” diction that is somewhat common among many preachers and not just the Rev. Dr. King.
“But in no way are we trying to imitate King,” Sbordone says.
“When John called me and said he had an interesting role, he said it would definitely challenge me,” Jordan says. “Then he told me that it was Martin Luther King. The first thing I felt is that it’s very intimidating because he’s Martin Luther King. After reading the script, I felt like I could take this challenge on. Of course, I want to be able to pay him respect and do him justice.”
Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
“The Mountaintop,” written by Katori Hall, produced by City Repertory Theatre, directed by John Sbordone, with Brent Jordan as Martin Luther King Jr., and Phillipa Rose as Camae. At 7:30 p.m. Thursday Feb. 17 through Saturday Feb. 19, and at 3 p.m. Sunday Feb. 20. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $20 adults and $15 students, available at crtpalmcoast.com, by calling 386-585-9415, or at the venue just before showtime. “The Mountaintop” is not included in the CRT season pass.