I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (Dr Martin Luther King Jr, April 3, 1968)
Daniel Francis and Tala Gouveia as King and Camae (courtesy or the New Vic)
To what extent should we allow a man’s human failings to define his place in history? Martin Luther King’s reputation as the man who changed the course of racial politics in America is unassailable. However, close associates have described his weakness for women, he smoked, and, at the time of his assassination in 1968, he was battling factions within his own movement over the policy of non-violent resistance and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Katori Hall’s play, The Mountaintop, is an exploration of the conflicts between the man and his myth and is named after the speech given in Memphis the evening before King’s death. The play explores the humanity of King the man, while contextualising both his struggles and his achievements in a wider American history of the late 20th century. In his speech, King makes reference to his own mortality and to the need for the struggle to go on without him. After the sermon, and on the eve of his assassination, King is visited by a mysterious maid bringing him coffee and difficult questions about his faith and the direction of the struggle. Camae challenges King’s adherence to non-violent struggle, evoking Malcolm X and delivering her own oration, as passionate and compelling as King’s, exhorting American Americans to ‘kill all the white people … with our minds’. The play draws our attention to both the costs of passive resistance in the face of ruthless violence (‘walking won’t get us far’, Camae reminds King) and to the sacrifices made by poor black women under the conditions of segregation in the South and in the Civil Rights movement itself (a concern dealt with by Alice Walker in her novel, Meridian). Camae refers to women like her as the ‘mules of the world’ and challenges King to include them in his vision of the Promised Land. Hall is, I think, deeply aware that the Civil Rights movement was a patriarchal enterprise; beyond Rosa Parks, most of us would be unable to name a significant woman campaigner.
The play was first performed in London in 2009 and won numerous nominations and awards. There are some surprising twists in this drama, and plenty of humour alongside the politics and human frailties.
This production is on till Saturday June 25 at the New Vic close to Staffs Uni. It’s a shame that the production has been ignored by the national press, as the acting is superb, with British actors Daniel Francis and Tala Gouveia nailing the Southern accents and the staging allowing the power of King’s oratory and his legacy to be fully realised. It was great to hear the actors talk about the rehearsals, the emotional responses of the audience, and their own re-appraisals of the Civil Rights struggle and King’s legacy in the talk-back session after the performance. This is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen.