|Jamil A.C. Mangan and Courtney Thomas. Photo: Lanny Nagler|
By Lauren Yarger
It’s April 3, 1968 and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., arrives at a Memphis motel after delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. There, a mysterious maid bringing him a cup of room service coffee causes him to reflect on his life and destiny in Katori Hall’s Olivier-winning play The Mountaintop, running at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
Audiences are transported to the eve of the civil rights leader’s assassination not only by the script, but through a meticulous recreation of room #306 at the Lorraine Motel by Set Designer Evan Adamson. Adamson, who collaborated as an associate designer on the Broadway production, which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, visited the motel, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, with designer David Gallo. They used photos and documentation catalogued about the room to create the set, according to program notes.
Exhausted and uninspired, King works on his next speech tentatively titled “Why America is Going to Hell” while a thunderstorm rages outside (lighting and sound design by John Lasiter and Michael Miceli). Camae (Courtney Thomas), a maid in a bright yellow uniform to match her sunshiny personality (costume design by Amy Clark), brings the coffee and inexplicably stays at King's repeated invitations for a prolonged conversation. King bums some cigarettes from the foul-mouthed woman and banters around with her as a sexual tension between them mounts.
King chastises the maid for some of her blasphemous remarks, but likes Camae’s style and sense of humor. At one point, she dons his jacket and shoes, stands on the bed and lets loose with her own rousing civil rights speech that could be titled, “F*** the White Man.”
When Camae suddenly knows things about King that a stranger wouldn’t, he suspects she isn’t a motel maid, but is a spy for his political enemies. Who she really works for is something of a shocker. I won’t give spoilers, but Camae’s real identity takes us to a surreal realm and Hall’s play never really recovers from the twist.
Director Rob Ruggiero wisely makes the reality shift in a subtle, controlled fashion to avoid losing the audience’s trust completely (not so with the Broadway production, where Camae’s “occupation” seemed like a gimmick and threw the more serious idea of a visit with King on the eve of his last day on earth off course). Ruggiero also gets excellent performances from both actors (again, achieving better results than the New York production even with those star names on the marquee). Mangan essentially becomes King for us, both as the man tired of being the subject of hate and as the gifted, inspired speaker (Mangan really sounds like King – and what a treat to hear him “in person” the week the nation was remembering the 45th anniversary of his death.) Thomas goes deep and somehow makes the expletive-using, unfit-for-her-job Camae likable.
Especially worth seeing is a collage of images projected in conjunction with Camae’s inspiring words – almost in the form of a poem -- about the progress of the civil rights movement and how it will have success beyond King’s imagination.
An exhibition titled “306” also is on display in the upstairs lobby and includes plans and a video detailing the set design. It opens 90 minutes prior to curtain.
The Mountaintop runs through May 5. Perfromances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Weekend matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets: General Admission $50; Center Reserved Upgrade $13; student Rush w/ID $17 (subject to availability); Senior Saturday Matinees $3 (860) 527-7838.; www.theaterworkshartford.org.
A free matinee for college students and faculty is offered Saturday, April 13 at 2:30 pm.