Martin Luther King Day 2014

A hotel room, a reverend with a wandering eye, and a sassy maid are the backdrop for a salacious and juicy tale. In contemporary society, that would normally be welcomed, but when Katori Hall made this the backdrop for The Mountaintop which first hit stages in 2009 everyone wasn't pleased. Since then, there's been lots of vitriol, criticism, and even some praise for Hall's work. After reading the script and seeing the Broadway production starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Basset, I can vouch for its entertainment value. But as pure history, the storytelling muddles and downplays aspects of the Martin Luther King story without adding much to either the tale of his efforts or the intimate details of his less than perfect life.

There's no special reason to review The Mountaintop on this MLK day.  Certainly, many articles today will point out that 2014 is 50 years since the Civil  Rights Act of 1964. That  framing of history should not  give any more reason than any other year to review  Dr. King's memory or to re-examine how The Mountaintop did or did not capitalize on his imagery to push forth a platform.  2018, 50 years since his death would be better suited for that purpose. Rather, the interplay of history and memory demands constant attention be paid to the way historical figures and movements are constantly re-imagined and presented. 

The most powerful and memorable scene of The Mountaintop had nothing to do with King chasing the maid, Camae, through the hotel room. It is at the play's end, when King convinces Camae to show him the future after his death, that leaves the biggest impression on the viewer. In a blur of images Camae rattles of names and events between 1968 and 2009, ending unsurprisingly with the election of Barack Obama. The common refrain in the piece is "The Baton Passes On." This repeats after Obama is shown, lest anyone mistake the point to be that Obama is running the last leg of the relay for peace and justice. It's also clear that the race for peace and justice continues through good and bad, positive and negative. Hall's rendering makes you a little worrisome of the work that still has to be done almost fifty years after King's death. Still, it's a good reminder that good or bad, our actions have an impact for those that come afterwards.

What are you passing on?


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