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Superb mini-revival of Katori Hall's Olivier-winning MLK drama
Having premiered at the 65-seat Theatre503 in Battersea in 2009 – before scooping up acclaim, transferring to the West End, bagging an Olivier and finally opening on Broadway in 2011 – Katori Hall’s ‘The Mountaintop’ is returning to an intimate venue. The Young Vic’s studio space, The Clare, is an appropriate setting for this two-hander: an encounter on a storm-lashed night in April 1968 in a Memphis motel between Martin Luther King (Gbolahan Obisesan) and spiky maid Camae (Ronke Adékoluejo). King may have been a preacher and an activist, but it’s clear he was no saint: proud, bull-headed, cantankerous – and not above earthly desires.
The first 45 minutes of this single-act play hold a magnifying glass over the divisions within the black community of the time, never as simple as ‘us versus the oppressors’. Camae – a kind of stand-in for King’s intellectual opposite, Malcolm X – scorns King’s ‘bourgeois negro’ values. She questions the point of his non-violent protests, at one point even suggesting the only way forward is ‘death to the white man’. The pair argue and flirt then just, just as the momentum starts to ebb, the play takes a sharp metaphysical turn, and King is given some news: the next day, he’ll be assassinated.
Hall’s play is as funny as it is gut-wrenchingly sad. And that breadth of tone is matched in a remarkably varied portrait of King by Obisesan: noble in some places, buffoonish in others. But what really makes this production soar is director Roy Alexander Weise’s clear decision to bind what could feel like a historical fable to the here and now. There’s the hip hop soundtrack. And in the end scenes, Camae’s vision of the future – delivered with spellbinding fervour by Adékoluejo – is aided by projected footage. She takes us from King’s death to the Black Power movement, to Rodney King, to 9/11, to Obama and, yes, to two presidential candidates battling to govern a country still fractured by fear and hate. As Camae tells King: ‘This is a relay race. You need to pass the baton.’ King accepts he’ll never see the fair and equal future he’s fighting for. Will any of us?