Jerold Solomon and Katrinah Carol Lewis in Cadence Theatre Co.'s "The Mountaintop," in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre (photo by Jason Collins)
“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.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a message with those words on the evening of April 3, 1968, in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. What happened later that night at the Lorraine Motel, where King stayed, is imagined in Katori Hall’s play, “The Mountaintop,” which Cadence Theatre Co., in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre, opens on Saturday in the Theatre Gym, after previews Thursday and Friday.
It’s a stormy night. King is exhausted and not feeling well, wary of threats on his life, and weary of the violence surrounding his peace movement. While he waits for his friend Ralph Abernathy to bring him cigarettes, he orders coffee, which is brought by a maid named Camae, who’d just started working at the motel, and they strike up a conversation.
It’s also King’s last night on earth, and though he couldn't know that, his mortality is on his mind. During the speech he gave that evening, he had touched on the possibility of his death. After he arrived in Memphis, he had said, “Some began to … talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? 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. ... Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
His rhetoric was grand, heroic, larger than life, and King tends to be remembered that way. But in “The Mountaintop,” he’s fully human.
“I love how the play makes him a man more than just a hero,” says Laine Satterfield, who is directing the Cadence production. She’s also drawn to playwright Hall’s vision: “She wants us to see the hero in ourselves.” In an interview with The Julliard Journal, Hall, who's originally from Memphis, talks about a personal connection with King's final days there.
To prepare for the role, Solomon watched King’s interviews and speeches. He’s even visited the Lorraine Motel, an experience he found deeply moving, Satterfield says.
“Jerold talks about how there’s his preacher voice, and there’s the everyday Martin Luther King Jr.,” she says. “He’s discovered a lovely humanization of this icon. He’s really bringing himself to the role rather than doing an impersonation.”
Camae is played by Katrinah Carol Lewis, who attended Virginia Commonwealth University with Solomon and recently portrayed Billie Holiday in TheatreLab’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” She also appeared in “The Color Purple” with Solomon.
“They play off each other so beautifully,” Satterfield says. “Even though some of the subject matter is dark, there are comic moments. They’re very present with one another and they have really great chemistry. “
In addition to directing, Satterfield, who teaches theater and runs SPARC’s New Voices for the Theater program, has appeared onstage in numerous local productions, among them Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” "Detroit," “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Winner of the Laurence Olivier award for best new play in 2010 in London, “The Mountaintop” is getting its first Richmond production. (On Broadway, actors Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett portrayed the two characters.)
Part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, the show runs through March 12, with talkbacks scheduled after the 4 p.m. performances on Feb. 28 and March 6. Because of adult language and content, it is recommended for ages 16 and older.
Tickets are $30. For more information, call 282-2620 or go to va-rep.org.