Review by Judith Robinson
Kevin Hanchard, hits it way out of the ballpark, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in The Mountaintop at the Shaw Festival. The actor gives a 105-minute non stop, performance at fever pitch , acting out King’s last torturous hours at the Lorraine Motel. The play is not easy to watch. Hanchard begs and pleads for more time, his body broken, his mind scattered and his hope dwindling. Somehow he knows, while smoking and phoning God, that this day will be his last.
Photo by David Cooper
He will die in a moldy motel in Memphis, with maid/angel, Camae, played by Alana Hibbert, his only companion. He calls out for his friends, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young who were with him on that fateful night in April, 1968. But they’re not there. Only this strange illusion haunts him—a combination of sinner/saint—echoing his own tortured past.
As Hanchard rants and raves, real truths about King emerge—his desire to unite poverty stricken whites and blacks together in the fight against war, which may have threatened authorities enough to cost him his life—his devotion to his children—his singular lack of faith. His voice hoarse from shouting above the tornado force winds outside the sanctuary, and then in the motel, his energy is spent. All that’s left is pure spirit. Hanchard himself is a tornado—a bundle of anger, fear and confusion funneled together in a gale that hits the audience head on.
While the part of King has been exquisitely written by playwright Katori Hall, Hibbert’s part is hard to follow. She’s an earthy maid for the first half and then suddenly she transforms into the angel of death sent on special assignment from God to take the preacher home. The role lacks consistency. Hibbert tries to overcome the writing glitch as best she can with humour, seductive allure and passion.
Director, Philip Akin, Artistic Director of Obsidian, includes some skillful touches. King’s actual voice floods the auditorium before the play begins and news-reel photographs are projected on the screen at the end. “Like anybody I would like to live a long life,” King said, in his last speech just before the scene at the motel. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.” King knew his days were numbered. He’d had countless death threats, bugging by the FBI, faced persecution and prejudice, but above it all the man had a power that captivated crowds and so does Hanchard. The audience leapt to its feet at the end of the performance. It was a stunning tour de force about a great man who lost his life far too early.
The Mountaintop is at the Studio Theatre until September 7. It is not to be missed.