Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Mountaintop—Portland Center Stage—NW Portland

The Dream

The production is written by Katori Hall and directed by Rose Riordan.  It is performed at PCS’s space at 128 NW 11th Ave. and runs through October 27th.  For more information, go to their site at www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700.

“I have a dream…” speech is as famous as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Both orations speak of a better tomorrow; both men came from humble beginnings; both shared a kinship as to slavery; and both were assassinated.  And this is the “stuff that dreams are made on,” and heroes and legends are hatched.

But, in this production, we see a different Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Rodney Hicks).  The setting is his motel room the night before his death.  It is raining, he is alone, and the loud thunder from the heavens unnaturally unnerves him.  We see him as an ordinary man who is comfortable with fear as his best friend, who realizes that if he wakes up with fear, he knows he’s alive.  He is pondering over his next speech, calling his wife and kids because of loneliness, and dying for a cigarette and, maybe, companionship.

Into this setting appears Camae (Natalie Paul), a maid who could satisfy some of those needs.  She is a no-nonsense type of person, straight-talking and part of that silent majority that all political figures refer to.  They share stories about the degradation at the hands of the white man.  He sees marches and discussions as the means to unite all brothers.  She favors a more active, forceful participation of brethren. 

But when she calls him Michael, his birth name, his paranoia surfaces and he senses she may be a spy from the government.  In a way, she is, but not for any earthly entity.  She is an angel and is there to prepare him for his journey home.  He asks for an extension in time as he feels his work is not yet done.  Even after arguing over the phone with her Boss (and She is black and proud of it), it gets him nowhere. 

But, as a consolation prize, he is permitted to see visions of the future and to know that his “Dream” will be fulfilled, even though he will not be able to enter the Promised Land himself.  “So close and yet so far way,” he intones.  A plateau has been reached, the baton is passed and “the Mountaintop” may be within sight.

Hall’s play has its power in the relationship between these two individuals and the differing viewpoints.  But it also has the task of presenting more than one theatrical genre in this story, mostly successful.  It almost slips into silliness with the phone call to God but redeems itself by the end with the powerful visions of roads traveled.  And the might of the two performers gives it the necessary creditability, in which was manifest in a well-deserved, standing ovation from an almost full house.

Hicks, as King, has the unenviable role of presenting us the Man, not the Myth, of this powerful icon of American history.  And, he does it well, giving us not the saint, nor the sinner, but an ordinary human being, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  And Paul has an equally difficult job of presenting a mystical character and doing it creditably.  She is totally committed as the impassioned maid, giving us a working-class outlook on life and her times.  And she is equally convincing in role of the novice angel trying to do her job well.  Both are experts at playing off each other and always keeping us involved.

Riordan has varied the pacing of the actors to such an extent that we never lose interest in the story.  And she keeps the setting simple, so as not to distract us from her exceptional cast.  Well done on all counts.

I would recommend this play but it does have occasional rough language, in case that offends you.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.