If You Ask Me…

“Mountaintop” Observes Black History at Norwalk’s Musical Theatre of Connecticut

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

The go-to play for “Black History Month” may well be Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop”, a two-character, one-set drama based on the final night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Economically minded theatres just can’t seem to resist it.

Although it had a brief run on Broadway in 2011 with stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, the play is a natural for smaller regional theatres across the country.  You can currently catch the play at Norwalk’s intimate Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC).

“The Mountaintop” takes place in 1968, in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King (Chaz Rose) is busy working on the speech that will be his final.  A knock at the door reveals Camae (Shavonna Banks), a hotel maid bringing coffee and, as it turns out, much more.

Camae is full of opinions and surprises.  Sharing smokes and a flask with King soon makes conversation easier between the two strangers. Then, at about midpoint of the play, we learn something about Camae that I can’t really reveal without spoiling Hall’s major twist.  It’s a twist involving magical realism that you will either buy into or bail on.

I have seen “The Mountaintop” a few times now and no matter how fine the acting may be, it is at this point in the play that Hall loses me.  The great August Wilson also employed magical realism in many of his plays but the difference here is that Wilson’s characters were mostly fictional whereas in “The Mountaintop” we are dealing with a real legendary figure.  In my view, having Dr. King involved in a pillow fight or talking to God on the phone (yes, you read that right) belittles his legacy.

Chaz Rose, taking on the challenges of playing the Civil Rights leader, relies on the broad strokes of the character in a rather pushy and loud performance.  At times he seems to be channeling Steve Harvey rather than the good Reverend and is ultimately just too big for the room. He is far more effective in his quieter moments, the few allowed him.

This gives Shavonna Banks the opportunity to easily steal the show with a delightful performance in a nearly impossible role.  When she dons King’s jacket and shoes to imitate his speeches, or lets a string of profanities fly or coyly flirts her own point of view, Banks is always an assured and welcome presence here.

Director Gayle Samuels stages well in the limiting setting but one wishes she had a firmer hand on the lead character.  Lindsay Fuori’s modest motel setting with cheap furniture and a stained rug seems historically accurate and RJ Romeo has a lot on his plate as lighting, sound & projection designer and does well by all three.

“The Mountaintop” continues at MTC, 509 Westport Avenue in Norwalk through February 20th.  For further information, visit: www.musictheatreofct.com or call the theatre box office: 203.454.3883.  Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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