Smug theatergoers heading to “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s fictional depiction of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth, may think they know what they’re going to get. Some hagiographic rumination on a great leader struck down tragically before his time, perhaps. Or a behind-the-scenes historical look at the hidden workings of the civil rights movement.
Instead, Hall’s play — being given an entrancing staging by Cadence Theatre in cooperation with Virginia Repertory Theatre — starts by concocting a thoroughly human King and then sends him on a twisting journey that spins into gloriously unexpected directions.
It’s the fateful night before his assassination in Memphis and King (Jerold Solomon) has just delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers. He returns weary to his generic hotel room (excellently rendered by scenic designer Rich Mason) and calls room service for a late-night pot of coffee.
The maid who brings it, Camae (Katrinah Carol Lewis), is sly, flirty, profane and blunt. Slowly but deliberately during an intermission-free 90 minutes, Camae pushes and prods King to reveal himself — his flaws, fears and fantasies all eventually tumbling out in expertly crafted repartee that is alternately wryly hilarious and keenly perceptive.
Along the way, revelations about Camae and her unique, intertwined destiny with King come to the surface. The eventual twists may be both fictional and fantastical, but instead of wrecking the mood, they elevate the focus to concerns deeply spiritual and profoundly personal.
Director Laine Satterfield couldn’t have chosen better lead actors for her finely crafted production. Solomon delivers a comfortably lived-in and increasingly complex portrayal of King. Watching him slip easily from frumpy campaigner to playful flirt to oratorical powerhouse is wonderful to witness. After her triumphant take on Billie Holiday in TheatreLab’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” earlier this season, Lewis returns with a character that’s quirky without being a caricature, sassy but subtle. Her Camae is so engaging that it’s entirely understandable that King can hardly take his eyes off of her.
Satterfield finds compelling ways to move her actors around the stage, giving the production an energy that might otherwise have been lacking in a talky two hander. She’s assisted by an ever-present sound design from Jesse Senechal, constant rain and intermittent thunderclaps punctuating the action at key points.
Hall manages to sneak plenty of historical tidbits and clever asides into her script, from the nickname of King’s daughter to the many threats made on his life. But they’re delivered so organically that the play never feels pedantic. The script also is peppered with plenty of racially contentious dialogue — Camae calls King one of them “boogey black folks” and King is pushed to proclaim “Fuck the white man!”
While only the frame of Hall’s story is based on reality, she fills in the picture with such insightful and intriguing details that the result is a singularly compelling portrait of what it might have been like to be King. Make the climb to “The Mountaintop” and you’ll be surprised by what you see. S
Cadence Theatre’s “The Mountaintop” runs at Virginia Repertory’s Little Theatre, 114 W. Broad St., through March 12. Tickets and information are available at va-rep.org.