The Mountaintop: thrilling peaks (and some valleys)

publicity still for The Mountaintop

Kwesi Ameyaw and Shayna Jones (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

For me, the doorway to this production didn’t open until about halfway through. At that point, it became transcendent — intermittently. By the end, I was moved.

In Katori Hall’s 2009 script, she imagines Martin Luther King Jr. in his motel room on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. The moment a maid named Camae arrives bearing the coffee King has ordered, you know she is no ordinary worker: there’s a flash of lightning, a crash of thunder, and the lights in the room flicker. Sure, there’s a storm outside, but we’re in the theatre and cues like this are not accidental.

Camae’s true nature provides an excellent twist, which I won’t reveal, but there was considerable ground to cover before I got to the best bits. (I’m a white guy and, inevitably, I’m writing from that perspective, so take that into account.) King and Camae flirt and, under Omari Newton’s direction, Shayna Jones, who’s playing Camae, overdoes it. With her perpetually cocked hip and wiggling walk, and with the cliché seduction through shared cigarettes, there’s clear intention but not much subtlety. Kwesi Ameyaw’s take on King is centred and responsive, but it captures none of King’s charisma. For a long time, I found the exchanges between them flat.

Then the production hits the first of its very, very sweet spots. Camae has been sparring with King about his political approach, telling him that his marches and messages of brotherly love and interracial solidarity aren’t getting the civil rights movement anywhere. When he asks her what he should say in his speech the next day, she puts on his suit jacket and shoes, stands on one of the room’s twin beds, and delivers a scorcher of a diatribe: “This is the day I’m going to tell you to kill the white man … with your minds … Fuck the white man!”

Jones is riveting in this passage. Her delivery is stylized, but informed by such focused rage that it’s impossible to look away.

Then Camae’s big revelation comes — and, with it, dazzling theatricality, thanks largely to Wladimiro A Woyno R’s projection design and Jonathan Kim’s lighting.

The emotional stakes are higher from this point on, and the evening acquires more focus and gravitas — although it’s often surprisingly funny, as it has been throughout.

And, thanks to Newton and his team, the final theatrical gesture is a knockout. Through a combination of text and projections, we get a sped-up history of the civil rights movement from King’s death to Barack Obama’s inauguration. It’s wrenching — because of the victories and because of the depth of cruelty that must still be overcome, all within the current context of the multiple crises in Western civilization.

THE MOUNTAINTOP By Katori Hall. Directed by Omari Newton. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Thursday, May 26.  Continues until June 11. Tickets

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: Sign up for FRESH SHEET, my weekly e-letter about the arts. 

And, if you want to help to keep independent arts criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!