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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Nikiya Mathis and J. Bernard Calloway in "The Mountaintop." (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

"The Mountaintop" rises to the occasion


Writing a play about a famous person who fully fills our mind and memory is an inherently treacherous task.

Whoever the subject is, we already have our preconceived beliefs and notions about him or her. We remember. We love or hate or laugh or cry over a life lived with fame.

"Lombardi," the play about the famous Green Bay Packers coach, faced many of these problems. We know Vince Lombardi. We have our opinion of him. Trying to create a reality that is an alternate to ours is virtually impossible.

We know he was a human being with frailties and doubts and foibles, but that is not what we remember and you will never convince us otherwise.

The same problem seems to affect "The Mountaintop," a play about the last night in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We know King and the gigantic life he led. We have read and seen and heard about this hero and his life and how he led and bled but never fled the battle for civil rights.

This play by Katori Hall takes place in King's room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. King had just delivered his famous "I have seen the promised land" speech. The play has won many awards and arrives at the Stiemke Studio at the Milwaukee Rep with quite a reputation and high expectations.

The first half of the play doesn't meet any expectations that we will gain some insight into this great man. Indeed, the first half seems like a depthless sitcom, with funny jokes, mugging for the audience and stereotyped flirtations.

But, with the turn of a mysterious screw, this play roars to life on the wings of the brilliant actors, J. Bernard Calloway and Nikiya Mathis. It moves from being a joke to becoming a juggernaut.

The playwright and the director, May Adrales, requested that any reviews of the play don't reveal the plot twist. I have agreed to do that.

But, let it be said that the twist in the plot also marks the point at which this train gathers a full head of steam and roars along the tracks, leaving us breathless with wonder at the power and the glory of this man and his life.

Sure, it's a gimmick, but in this case it's a gimmick that opens a whole new door for the audience. It works.

Adrales, who is young and an Artistic Associate at the Rep, has a sensibility about things that goes far beyond her years. She has plotted a path for her actors and created a navigable forest through which they can steam.

The set, designed by Lee Savage, looks like every semi-tawdry hotel room you have ever stayed in. But beneath the room there beats the heart of a home away from home for King and a pleasure palace for Camae, the hotel maid who is about to take him on a journey he will never forget.

While you are still settling into your seat, you may wonder what this play has to do with a man who changed the course of history. This worn-out preacher, lusting after a Pall Mall (which oddly came with filters in the play), the stuff of which legends are made?

Of course not. But like all good plays, just wait a bit. The magic of the play, the magic of the theater and the magic of Martin Luther King will soon wrap arms around you and carry you to your promised land.


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