Wilson, Ellis lift Trinity Rep’s ‘The Mountaintop’

From left to right: Mia Ellis as Camae and Joe Wilson, Jr. as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop.” Photo Mark Turek.

From left to right: Mia Ellis as Camae and Joe Wilson, Jr. as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop.” Photo Mark Turek.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When you have a resident acting troupe such as the Trinity Repertory Company, sometimes the ideal person to play a role might not be a member of the company.

And then there are times when the roles and members of the company are in perfect lockstep, and the search can begin and end in the same house.

Trinity Rep looked inward for its production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” and found its Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the redoubtable Joe Wilson, Jr. a Trinity mainstay for the past 12 years and a two-time IRNE winner.

It also found his co-star, Trinity Rep company member Mia Ellis, who plays a mysterious motel worker who comes to King’s hotel room in Memphis, Tenn. the night before his death.

“The Mountaintop,” fittingly, had its official press night on the MLK holiday itself.

Wilson said in an interview in the program that he began studying Dr. King, and his speeches, as a young man and as the son of a United Methodist minister was no stranger to fiery oratory and sermons.

It all pays off in his portrayal, nailing the preacher’s sing-song cadence, his powerful and inspiring voice tinged with weariness and resignation and, at times, doubt that he will ever be able to bring his people to “The Mountaintop.”

As the play begins, King has holed up in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn – where he has come to support striking sanitation workers – on April 3, 1968, after giving the final speech of his life that day. It was “The Mountaintop” speech, the final paragraphs of which playwright Hall will seize upon as the basis for the play’s plot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. 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. And I’ve looked over. And 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!

King, of course, was assassinated the next day at the Lorraine Hotel by James Earl Ray.

As written by Hall and played by Wilson, King isn’t a candidate for sainthood but, like all of us, just a man with foibles and warts, albeit one upon whom has been thrust the champion of rights for a whole race of people, and a man who is threatening to collapse under the weight of their expectations.

King is wearing down during his seemingly unending life on the road, missing his family, all too cognizant that only one of the many death threats against him may someday be successful.

While waiting for Rev. Roy Abernathy to return with a pack of cigarettes, he asks room service for a cup of coffee, which arrives attached to the hand of an attractive African-American woman named Camae.

Mia Ellis as Camae is earthy, sassy funny, sexy, and flirtatious, with a potty mouth that can’t seem to help but throwing curse words. which she is constantly apologizing for.

Hall’s writing shines in the back-and-forths between the preacher and motel housekeeper/waitress who is on her first day of work.

Camae muses about a couple who was doing the “hoochie-coochie” on the bed before him.

“I wouldn’t lay down on that bed if you paid me,” she says

And when Camae catches him looking her over, she jumps up.

“If I was a man, I’d be staring at me, too,” cackles Camae.

Camae, it turns out, is an angel, a very different kind of angel, sent to help King make his journey to the other side.

“The Mountaintop” – while becoming one of the most-produced plays in America – is not a perfect piece There is a pillow fight scene that comes out of nowhere that’s very awkward and the phone call that MLK makes to God – a female, “black and proud” as described by Camae – while a cute idea, goes on a bit long.

And Hall does gild the lily here when snow – a good deal of snow – piles up outside the hotel room, just in case you weren’t quite sure that King indeed had arrived on “The Mountaintop.”

But that doesn’t detract from the performances of Wilson and Ellis, who share an easy chemistry.

Director Kent Gash has worked with Wilson before and helped him find both the humanity and heart of Dr. King.

The configuration of Trinity’s Dowling Theater with theater-goers on three sides, allows scenic designers to stretch their legs and give an 180-degree, three-dimensional look, and Jason Sherwood has opened up Dr. King’s room in the Lorraine Motel.

Shawn Duan’s projection design skillfully renders a pastiche of highlights – and lowlights – of the half-century since King’s death, including the burning cities in the wake of King’s assassination.

“The Mountaintop” is a showcase for Wilson, who skillfully and lovingly executes playwright Hall’s winning portrait of an icon. Wilson, regrettably, doesn’t get up Route 95 to Boston that often, so make the trip south.

The Trinity Repertory Company’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop.” Directed by Kent Gash. Set design by Jason Sherwood, costume design by Kara Harmon, lighting design by Dawn Chiang, sound design by Justin Ellington, projection design by Shawn Duan. At the Dowling Theater through Feb. 12. trinityrep.com.

 

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