"The Mountaintop" at Cape May Stage depicts fictional tale of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Night
The new season at Cape May Stage opens next week, on Wednesday, May 21, with “The Mountaintop,” a fictional portrayal of the events that occurred the night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died.
Other season offerings include “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Blythe Spirit,” but Roy B. Steinberg, Producing Artistic Director, has no qualms about kicking off with something less familiar.
“’The Mountaintop’ represents the direction that Cape May Stage – now in its 25th year – is going,” Steinberg said. “We want to produce current work. We want to present plays by young writers and by women. And we want to do material that provokes discussion.”
Citing these criteria, “The Mountaintop” hits a grand slam!
The play is just half a decade old. It premiered in 2009, and took England's Olivier Award for Best New Play that year. The playwright, Katori Hall, is a young (30-something), black woman from Memphis, Tennessee.
And the play addresses inequality, which Steinberg calls “the defining issue of our time.”
Katori Hall’s web site describes “The Mountaintop” as “a surrealistic fantasy about a chance encounter between King and a mysterious hotel maid who brings him a cup of coffee and prompts him to confront his life, his past, and the plight and future of his people.”
The story is told by just two actors and, as Steinberg noted, this presents a challenge for the artists – to be on stage throughout and to carry the play.
But neither Steinberg nor Gregg T. Daniel, who is directing “The Mountaintop” for Cape May Stage, is concerned. For both, the play stands up because of the richness and depth of Hall’s writing, the powerful story, and a special quality that Steinberg called “poetic imagery.”
Daniel is a veteran of stage and screen, and I asked him if he had a history with this play. His answer was an emphatic “yes.”
“I remember all this hoopla when it first appeared,” Daniel said. Although it was common knowledge that this was a fictional representation of King, Daniel and others worried that elements of the story could cast Dr. King in a less-than-flattering light.
“Some members of the African American community were concerned that the depiction of King might drag him down.”
Their fears were unfounded, and after seeing the play, Daniel was relieved. “The reviews were good and I really liked the material,” he said. “It was not at all disrespectful.” Before long, “The Mountaintop”found its way onto Daniel’s list of plays he wanted to direct.
He had worked previously at Cape May Stage – and with Roy Steinberg – in “Master Harold … and The Boys.”“Roy and I just hit if off,” he said. “Later on, we had a conversation and Roy told me he wanted to bring me back (to Cape May Stage.)”
“When he said he had me in mind to direct ‘The Mountaintop,’ I was thrilled,” said Daniel. “I said to myself, ‘Wow! I get to grapple with this play.’”
In addition to playing Reverend Daniels in “True Blood,” now filming its seventh season,Daniel is also a founding member of Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, both of which take place in Los Angeles. So, Daniel cast “The Mountaintop”on the West Coast, choosing two young actors he’d worked with before — Ben Cain to play Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nija Okoro for the hotel maid, Camae.
“They were both chomping at the bit,” Daniel said.
Daniel also has high praise for others involved in the production. “We have extremely talented individuals on the crew,” he explained. “The designers – set, lighting, costume – really helped me to clarify my own vision.”
“We deconstructed Martin Luther King,” said Daniel. “In the play, he is humble. He smokes cigarettes. He is human.”
And King’s human reflections force him to face his uncertainties and fears.
“Many of us are not so much afraid of dying,” Daniel said, “What does worry us, though, is that death may come before our work on earth is done. “It’s like, ‘wait, wait, I’m not finished yet.’
“Legacy looms large in this story,” he continued. “It makes us ask ourselves tough questions – like the way we feel about our own mortality and what we will leave behind when we go.
“The play clearly demonstrates that there is not just one Dr. King,” said Daniel. “Each of us brought to this project his or her individual experiences and reactions. We all see this man and what happened through the prism of our own times.”
“The Mountaintop”opens Wednesday, May 21 and continues through June 13. Cape May Stage is located at 405 Lafayette Street in Cape May, NJ. For more information, visit http://www.capemaystage.org.
Half-price Preview Performance: Wed, May 21, 8 p.m.
Opening Night: Thurs, May 22, 8 p.m.
Half-price senior (62+) Matinee: Sun, May 25, 3 p.m.
Pay What You Can Night: Fri, June 6, 8 p.m.
Jersey Arts Members are welcome to sit in on a invited dress rehearsal on May 20 at 7:30 p.m. This Premium Offer is FREE for Premium and Advocate Members. Log in to the Member Center for more information and to register.
Jersey Arts Members also get a "buy one, get one free" discount for other performances, pending availability. Not to be combined with any other offer. Call the box office at (609) 884-1341 and mention your Jersey Arts Membership to redeem.