The View From The Mountaintop
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night is presented on the Court Theatre stage
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WHEN Lisa Beasley was growing up in Gary, Ind., her parents made sure that she knew about the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not only focusing on his incredible life during the annual King Holiday celebrations but emphasizing his historic contributions throughout the year during family conversations.
That was the foundation of her knowledge about the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but she learned much more about him during school activities. By the time she graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis with a degree in classical jazz, she had become deeply involved with The April 4th Foundation, a group in the city that provides an organized platform for the encouragement, creation and support of commemorative historical and educational programs on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.
Now Beasley, 27, has taken things to another level at Court Theatre, co-starring in The Mountaintop, a fictional account about events in King’s life on the night before he was assassinated. Set in his room at the Lorraine Motel, King has begun to work on his next speech when he is interrupted by Camae, a young hotel maid played by Beasley. The two begin a long and unlikely conversation that reveals a personal side of King that makes him appear to be more of a human figure than an iconic one. “Camae is a firecracker who has a past that you learn about throughout the play. She’s a young girl making her way in the South in the ’60s,” says Beasley, whose stage credits include Field of Souls and Flow at eta Creative Arts Foundation, and The Marvin Gaye Story, The Other Cinderella and From Doo Wop to Hip Hop at the Black Ensemble Theater. “Camae has a lot of layers. It’s a little complicated sometimes because she can remind you of your mother, your aunt, your girlfriend or your teacher, and she embodies a lot of roles that Black women have played in society over the years. It’s really cool to be able to continue in that vein and be able to use the words [playwright] Katori [Hall] wrote. And how I interpret her words through Camae is the most fun part for me.”
In the two-person play, Beasley co-stars with David Alan Anderson, who makes his Court Theatre debut as Dr. King. A resident of Indianapolis, he is a 2013 recipient of the prestigious Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship, sponsored by the Ten Chimneys Foundation. He performs frequently with the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where his list of credits include The Whipping Man, Radio Golf, Gem of the Ocean, Romeo and Juliet, The Heavens are Hung in Black, A Christmas Carol, the title role in Julius Caesar, and the one-man show Looking Over the President's Shoulder.
David Alan Anderson portrays the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Court Theatre's production of The Mountaintop. (Photographs by Joe Mazza)
Anderson’s role as King, however, could be his most challenging, not only because he is portraying an exhausted 39-year-old who really wants a cigarette, but because some King followers see it as blasphemous to associate this iconic figure with the colorful language and sexual innuendo that’s included in the play. In other presentations of The Mountaintop––including the one on Broadway that starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett––there was some controversy generated because King is portrayed as a man who is less than perfect, contrary to the concept that many embrace about the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“That’s the part of the story that I appreciate. Who are you when you’ve had a long day and you’re at home relaxing?” Beasley asks. “There are people who we hold in high regard, but they just have to live life. They are still human. I think [this play] provides a more powerful view of Dr. King. There are a lot of things that I didn’t know about his personal life that I learned in this play. A lot of people can’t relate to what it’s like to be on a pedestal, but people can relate to being tired after a long day’s work. I think when you see him in this way, you’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, he was a person.’”
The Mountaintop, which debuted in London in 2010 and won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play, is Katori Hall’s most prestigious work among a repertoire that includes Hoodoo Love, Remembrance, Hurt Village, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning and The Hope Well. A former Memphian, now living in New York, she graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a major in African-American Studies and Creative Writing. In The Mountaintop, according to some critics, she somehow has managed to write a story that is uplifting, somewhat controversial and at the same time a little bit humorous, allowing the public to get a complete picture of exactly who Dr. King probably was.
Observers can make their own assessments after seeing the Court Theatre production, which is directed by Court Theatre resident artist Ron OJ Parson. But whatever the assessment, The Mountaintop is likely to generate some new thoughts––from young and old alike after they see it. “I hope people walk away and begin a conversation, a dialogue, maybe talk about race issues today or just reiterate the struggles of the ’60s,” Beasley says. “I think sometimes people need to be reminded that was not so long ago. They should be talking about what we should be teaching our children today, not just Black children––all children––because this is American history. I know some people will say, ‘Oh, another play about the ’60s.’ Yes, it’s another play about the ’60s because this story has to continue to be told.”
Previews for The Mountaintop are September 5 through September 13. The regular run continues through October 6. Curtain times are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.Ticket prices are $35 to $45 for preview performances and $45 to $65 for regular run performances. Tickets are available at the box office, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago (773) 753-4472) or online at www.CourtTheatre.org. Student and senior discounts are available. Groups of 10 or more may purchase discounted tickets by calling Kate Vangeloff at 773-834-3243.
Lisa Beasley, a 2008 graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, plays the role of Camae, a young hotel maid who spends several hours with King on his last night.