Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought hope with him when he became the face and the public mouthpiece of the freedom movement across the country better known as the American Civil Rights Movement. King inspired and was that glimmer of sunshine to millions of people who otherwise found themselves trampled under the ragged death throes of Jim Crow, segregation, discrimination, and being outliers of the Vietnam War.
And then he was gone. A fierce bullet cracked like an unforgiving whip in the early Memphis, Tennessee morning hours on April 4, 1968. Seconds later, King lay on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, his brilliant 39 years on earth quickly dissipating like the morning mist. Just a night earlier, King had delivered what could be best described as an out-of-body, prophetic sermon about what was to come for him as well as the movement.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” King said during that famous speech. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain…I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. I’m not worried about anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day the high-powered gunshot wound King suffered from the rifle of James Earl Ray emphatically ended his life and subsequently, severely crippled the Civil Rights Movement. The most important African American figure to come along in the 20th Century, King is revered today as the black Gandhi.
But that’s not how Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, now playing at the Garry Marshall Theatre (Playing through March 10), chooses to remember the charismatic leader. That’s a bit too obvious, said director Gregg T. Daniel. In directing The Mountaintop, which stars Gilbert Glenn Brown (Martin Luther King Jr.) and Carolyn Ratterray (Camae), Daniel said he tries to stay true to the vision outlined by Hall, and that is to present King in a rather ordinary way.
“Fictitiously, it’s (The Mountaintop) about the last 24 hours in the life of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but the playwright makes it such a delight…it’s her wonderful sense of imagination that takes us to what might have happened the night prior to Martin Luther King’s assassination,” Daniel said in a telephone interview. “But it’s filled with humor, it’s filled with the kind of magic realism, but it’s a look at Martin Luther King as a man, as a flawed individual who had really serious doubts about his ability to lead the civil rights movement.”
The backdrop of the West End and Broadway play is the Lorraine Motel-now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. King was in Memphis to help striking sanitation workers strategize and organize. But that was not the only mission he was on.
Books and other documents have alleged King to have romantic ties to other women outside of his wife Coretta. In his book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, perhaps King’s most trusted and closest ally, wrote King spent time with multiple women the evening before he shot down.
This is where the biggest obstacle in directing the play came for Daniel. On one hand, you have this sort of mythic deity in a lot of people’s eyes. On the other hand, King was found to have succumbed to his weaknesses like everyone else.
“The biggest challenge is to remain fair to Dr. King, to not try and work against him with the image of him as a flawed individual,” Daniel said. “Naturally, I wanted him to be a deity as well. Nothing wrong with presenting him as a deity, but It’s my job now is to present a flawed individual and all his confusion and all of his doubts and all of his insecurities. I figure that is the fairest way I can present Dr. King or else I should go do another play. That’s not this play. This play is to see him as every man. I am even more committed to present as a flawed man. He has smelly feet. He is a womanizer. He does smoke cigarettes. Now I revel in the fact that he did all of this and was still able to claim the moral high ground.”
Besides the basic element of giving audiences another look at King, Daniel was interested in tackling this project because of familiarity. Daniel admitted to directing The Mountaintop five years ago. This time around, Daniel says he looks at the play with a much different lens than he did when he first took this project on.
“I had directed the play about five years ago on the East Coast,” said Daniel. “I saw in a continuing context and I really wanted to tackle it again. I had my first try at it five years ago. I think, quite honestly, with the time that we’re living in, with the election of (President Donald) Trump and what’s happening racially, and economically in this country, suddenly the words of Martin Luther King in this play resonated so strongly that I knew I wanted to have an opportunity to do it again.”
With that chance, Daniel, whose directing credits include Lorraine Hansberry’s Las Blancs, August Wilson’s Fences, A Raisin in the Sun, and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, isn’t looking for the play to mean just one thing to all people.
“I’ve gotten past the point in my career where I think all the audience members should take one message,” Daniel said. “I really believe everyone will take a slightly different message. I try to present the play in its purest form, in terms of what the playwright wanted. I really think that the playwright wanted to view Dr. King, not just as a deity, but as a man, as a flawed individual-every man. He was every man. Yes, he was special because of his oral skills. I justed wanted to honor the playwright’s message, but I don’t insist that the audience take one underlying message. It may be very personal and different for each one of them. This is more of a challenge.”
Daniel said his viewpoint the second time around in directing this particular stage play contrasts from his initial thoughts about King because the world has evolved, and that no one person should have to take on that burden.
“I didn’t quite see the overall theme of the play the first time around. I was just so into it. This time around I did see if Dr. King and his flaws and shortcomings and doubts could step up and become the kind of leader the way he was…if anything he was sort an example of what anybody can do. We can’t wait for one person or a charismatic figure to sort of lead the movement again. It’s got to be individuals who step up. As you can see with the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s no one person who speaks for Black Lives Matter. It’s sort of decentralized. It’s all over the city.”
Citizen activism has not just been allocated to one city like Los Angeles. The entire country seems galvanized behind social issues. Much like when King and civil rights leaders were fighting the cause for housing fairness, better wage, poverty, and discrimination, the United States is reliving its past today. Teachers and educators are walking off the job. The #MeToo and TimesUp movements, which speaks to sexual harassment and sexual assault, has exploded. The fight for a woman’s right to choose is shaking up to be a battle in the streets and in the courtroom. Police brutality, gun violence, and social injustice are ongoing issues.
People are hitting the streets to voice their opposition to what they are seeing in this country as they did back when King was out there front and center doing his thing. Daniel said likes that kind of social engagement.
“I haven’t felt activism this strong…I actually feel there’s a happening now I haven’t felt in a while,” Daniel said. “There are people who are stepping up and saying no, this is not what we feel America is about. We don’t incarcerate children, we don’t take children away from their parents. We don’t shoot black people because of their driving or walking. I feel like there’s a level of activism that has been rekindled as a result of people saying we’re going so far to the other side because of policy.”
Even with the truth unfolded in showing King as human rather than some magical genie who pops out of a bottle, blinks and changes the circumstances around him whenever and however he saw fit, Daniel said that the
“Despite even all of the doubts, Dr. King caught hell when he moved against the war (Vietnam War),” said Daniel. “When he spoke out against the Vietnam War, friends turned to enemies, friends turned to doubt. It was a real backlash against him. It was real hatred in many ways, a real unexpected backlash. So I saw the kind of courage to still live by your conviction in the face of those who once supported you, now saying you’re going too far; you’re going way too far.”
Because King was able to stand his moral ground, Daniel said his admiration elevated, despite the civil rights leader’s shortcomings.
“I had even more admiration for a man who lived day to day, not only with personal doubt but was being assailed from all sides from people saying ‘just talk about civil rights.’ You don’t need to talk about poverty, and you definitely don’t need to talk about the war in Vietnam,” Daniel said. “The pressure was coming at him. My understanding and admiration of him grew even more with that kind of courage, with that kind of consistency.”