Queensland Theatre Company
February 22 – March 16 2014
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
The baton passes on.
A rainy April night in Memphis, 1968 – and Dr Martin Luther King Jr doesn’t know it, but it will be his last night on earth. Wearied but resolute after his years-long march at the head of the Civil Rights Movement, the preacher checks into room 306 at the modest Lorraine Motel.
Before the sun sets again, he will be shot and killed.
I saw MTC’s production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop last year and was struck by the magic created by the actors in that production, Bert LaBonte and Zahra Newman, who had been paired after appearing on stage together a few times already. There I saw the show at the end of the season and here I saw opening night of QTC’s production, directed by the company’s Associate Director, Todd MacDonald, starring a new pair, Pacharo Mzembe and Candy Bowers. By the end of the season these two are going to be magnificent; in fact from about 15 minutes in they are pretty damn good! However, it took that long for Mzembe to look really comfortable as Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the man; the sinner. When Camae, the flirtatious maid (another self-proclaimed sinner), stepped into King’s shoes, the shift in energy and focus from Bowers was also noticeable, and once both performers settled and relaxed, resuming the play between them that comes straight outta’ the rehearsal room, the show really started and the opening night audience lapped it up.
For me, the writing is less convincing than the end result, in this case, of some lovely gentle direction and two intuitive, eventually very natural performances, which make us catch our breath more than once, and sit up straighter and taller at the challenge to pass the baton on. The final minutes are really something. Hall’s play about Martin Luther King Jr’s (imagined) last night on earth impressed the Brits and divided American critics, some of whom, like Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar haters, probably preferred to remember the martyr, not the man.
But it’s with the man we sympathise, though not completely, since he’s a chain-smoking womaniser with stinky feet! It’s the real (imagined) view of a weary man at his most vulnerable, confronted by a sassy motel maid that makes the piece interesting, as well as the casual and comedic repartee between a philanderer and a woman who is not all she seems. Camae cleverly represents a fierce, Oprahfied black woman, and at the same time, the sadder image of the oppressed; it’s a wishful feminism. I can’t give away how Camae has reached her enlightened state, but as someone who believes that there have always been strong women around, whether they’ve been noted or not, I’m all for this aspect of Hall’s fiction. Indeed, it’s what makes the play possible.
No spoilers here, but some of Camae’s tricks don’t quite work, and the fault may be in the writing more than in the production elements (when this play grows up it will be a movie). It’s easy enough to skip past these effects and appreciate the magic for what it is – a reminder that, as much as we like to think it so, we don’t know all there is to know.
The highlight of this production is the delivery upstage, of Camae’s “The baton passes on” speech/rap/song/performance art piece by Bowers, supported by flickering images – a brilliant historical montage by optikal bloc – thrown across the motel windows and walls, not unlike Melbourne’s version of the play but with greater colour and immediate impact, paired as it is with Kieran Swann’s unassuming set, which moves and opens wide just as our hearts do. Layered within and around composition by Busty Beatz, Ben Hughes’ lighting and Tony Brumpton’s sound add to the extraordinary effect of a brilliantly conceived full-blown biblical ghetto sequence.
The most startling difference here is that Bowers makes the list of names and historical events mean something even more than they did already. She commands the space, driving the energy and bringing the message home to multiple generations, to those who remember events, and those who should never have to see history repeat itself. Mzembe’s final address is poignant and despite the playwright’s determination to drive the point home once again before we go home, he is able to keep it real rather than maddening, genuinely challenging us to keep changing the world.
The Mountaintop gives its performers the chance to breathe, flex their muscles and fly. This is truly inspirational theatre; a call to action, and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick up the baton and pass it on.