As the Unicorn Theatre's production of The Mountaintop begins, we're treated to a memorable series of stage pictures. It's Memphis, April 3, 1968, the stormy eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. We watch as King enters his dark room at the Lorraine Motel and sets down his briefcase, silhouetted by lightning flashes and street lamps beyond the open door. He stares wearily off into the distance, decompressing from the stresses of the day (among them the delivery of his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech). He crosses the room in powerful strides that match the rhythm of the rain slapping the pavement outside.
He takes a leak.
Nervous laughter from the opening-night audience followed. King seems like an untouchable figure to many of us — a prophet, a martyr, a saint.
But he had stanky feet.
Katori Hall's play, skillfully directed by Mykel Hill, is concerned with humanizing King, not further lionizing him. So he pads around that motel room in holey socks, he curses, he shouts out the door for Ralph Abernathy to bring him some Pall Malls. "I'm just a man," King repeats throughout the play, trying to convince himself as much as us.
Walter Coppage succeeds in capturing both King the man and King the magnetic orator. Portraying an icon is a high-pressure role for any performer, but Coppage is up to the task. He avoids mere imitation, tapping into the man's speech rhythms in his own ultra-smooth baritone. Whether he's flirting with Camae, the spunky motel maid, or phoning home to "Mrs. King" and the kids, Coppage's King is charismatic and down-to-earth.
The play's structure (and the Unicorn's staging) keeps the focus on King's final moments: one set, one night, two characters, no intermission. As King and Camae flirt, fight and negotiate, the audience knows that this man is circling ever closer to his death.
Camae, however, has a few secrets to out before the curtain falls. Chioma Anyanwu gives the room-service maid pluck, and her fiery speeches and sharp comedic timing drive the show. Her chemistry with Coppage is palpable, and as the terms of their characters' relationship change, Anyanwu picks up steam. "Walking'll only get you so far," she says before launching into a fervid sermon of her own from the motel-bed pulpit.
Scenic designer Gary Mosby handles the atmospheric effects well, and Douglas Macur's pulsing projections help weave the play's supernatural moments through the action. The set's flat back wall forces the actors into predictable blocking patterns, but that's a small sacrifice for the sake of historical accuracy — the Unicorn's set is almost indistinguishable from a photograph of the real room 306. From the vintage, salmon-colored curtains to the fingerprint smudges around the light switches, each visual detail feels meticulous and period-prudent.
Properties designer Emily Swenson and costume designer Arwen Thomas further flesh out the era. Thomas' costumes feel authentic and lived-in; small touches like Camae's apron wings and King's worn-out socks subtly flesh out character.
Despite its attempts to humanize King with smelly feet, Hall's play ultimately acknowledges that he was more than "just" a man. "You are a once-in-a-lifetime affair," Camae tells him, and Coppage's portrayal lives up to history's hype. His final, dreamlike monologue is one of the most affecting and evocative on this season's stage.
To say more about the ending would spoil the surprise, but it's safe to reveal that Camae proves unusually prescient for a motel maid. Anyanwu soars in her passionate final speech, riffing, poetry-slam-style, on black entertainers and politicians and musing about what's to come for civil rights and America. The fight doesn't die with King, after all. "The baton passes on," she assures him. In doing so, she also invites us to take a turn, pick it up and march on.