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THEATER REVIEW: San Diego Rep’s “The Mountaintop”

I’m sure civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t surprised when he was shot by James Earl Ray. After all, he’d been jailed by his own government, wiretapped by the FBI and had received threats, at least one a bomb threat.

Perhaps that’s why in the famous “mountaintop” speech the night before he died, he said “I may not get (to the Promised Land) with you.”

We may never know, but playwright Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” imagines what might have happened the night before he was shot. San Diego Repertory Theatre offers the West Coast premiere of Hall’s play through March 31.

The play takes place in Room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., where King (Larry Bates) calls room service for a cup of coffee. Tired and a bit discouraged, he removes his shoes and thinks about the virtues of nonviolence over more aggressive confrontation, and the future of the movement.

Behind him, on a flickering TV, images of runners Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos in the finals of the 400 from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City – six months hence – remind us that the civil rights race is not over yet, and that Hall will play with time and reality a bit in this play.

King is revived a bit by the entrance of pretty young maid Camae (Danielle Moné Truitt) with the welcome coffee. He finds her charming and a welcome diversion from the loneliness of his hotel-room life.

He bums a cigarette from her, and in the course of the ensuing conversation, King reveals his doubts, insecurities and exhaustion. They talk about passing the baton and who his successors might be. He openly flirts. She finds herself being more frank – and more profane – than she thought she could be with this movement icon.

Camae has her own ideas about speaking to the crowds, and in a wondrously comic bit she puts on his shoes, assumes the speaking style and urges, “We are fighting to sit at the same counter, but why, my brothers and sisters? We should build our own counters....F*** the white man! I say, f*** ‘em!”

Camae has more than a gift for imitation – she has a secret I won’t disclose here.

Both Bates and Truitt are well-cast. Bates shows King as few of us saw him: a chain-smoking coffee drinker, eminently human, with some of the same insecurities we all have.

Truitt is a pistol, with her Memphis twang (sometimes a bit difficult to comprehend) and freewheeling delivery.

Kudos to the tech team as well: Christopher Ward, for the almost industrial look of the hotel room; Marc Anthony Thompson, for the fine projections; Sherrice Kelly, for the mood-setting lighting.

Winner of Britain’s 2010 Olivier award for best new play, “The Mountaintop” offers a riveting glimpse into the lonely life of an American icon.

The details

“The Mountaintop” plays through March 31 at San Diego Repertory Theatre's Lyceum Space at Horton Plaza downtown.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 7 pm Some Saturdays at 2 pm and some Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm.

Tickets: 619-544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.