Actors spread Martin Luther King’s message from ‘The Mountaintop’
Park City Institute will present L.A. Theatre Works’ “The Mountaintop” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 31, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Ave. Tickets range from $29 to $79 and can be purchased by visiting www.ecclescenter.org.
Taking L.A. Theatre Works’ rendition of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” on tour through the United Statesaround the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an honor for actor Karen Malina White.
The two-person play, which is scheduled to be presented by Park City Institute on Saturday at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, is a fictional account of a meeting between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (Gilbert Glenn Brown) and Camae, a maid at the Lorraine Motel (White), the night before King’s assassination by James Earl Ray.
“We are blessed to go across the country and remind people of Dr. King’s message of unity during the political climate that is going on in this country — the divisiveness, regardless of what political party of what one belongs to,” said White.. “We are honored to share the message, which is that we are all intrinsically connected, and how we can be better citizens.”
Brown, who plays King, said there is an acute responsibility that comes with performing the role today.
“Because we’re in a world that has all of these sound bites and YouTube clips and other information pipelines, we see Dr. King portrayed in a very particular way,” Brown said. “These show mostly his public persona, and he has been almost catapulted to mythic proportions. And since that’s how he was presented to us, we tend to forget he was just a man. We don’t think about how he looked at himself. He wasn’t perfect. He had failings. He had doubts and fears that we all deal with. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
White first learned about the role when the play made its U.S. premiere on Broadway starring Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson in 2011.
“I read the play and truly fell in love with it because Katori Hall truly wrote a brilliant piece that merges fact and fiction,” White said. “I loved the character Camae and have been chasing this role for about five years.”
Once she got the role, White worked with director Shirley Jo Finney to bring Camae to life.
“Shirley Jo Finney says, ‘The writer is the composer,’” White said. “‘The director is the conductor and the actors are the musicians. And anyone can play the music, but the beauty, heart and passion of the performance lies in between the notes.’”
Although White didn’t have any preconceived notions about how to play the role, she worked hard with Finney to find the heart of Camae’s character.
“I didn’t realize just how hard the piece was, because there are many aspects of Camae that will surprise people,” White said. “Without giving too much away, I will say she is not who she appears to be.”
Brown also worked with Finney to find the soul of King in the script.
“Katori has written such a beautiful piece that speaks to [finding that soul] and the empowerment of everyone to take a stand where they are and speak up in their community, state and world, and see where they can contribute and influence change for the better of all,” he said. “I think the audiences who we perform for are getting a chance to see Dr. King as a father, a son, a brother.”
One of the ways to reach the core of the production is how it’s presented, White said.
“L.A. Theatre Works mostly does radio plays, so the style of what we’re bringing to Park City is not done in a traditional set,” she said. “We have microphones set up across the stage and we face out into the audience while we deliver the lines. We don’t look at each other, but, instead, we have a spiritual conversation on stage and we’re bringing that to the audience.”
The format was a challenge for the actors to master, White confessed.
“It did, however, force us to reach each other through our hearts and find meaning in the script,” she said.
As an added bonus, the actors will participate in a Q&A at the end of the performance, Brown said.
“It’s almost like we’re having a town hall meeting after the show,” he said. “It’s interesting to see if the point has hit home with the reactions and comments from the audience. And that has been fantastic because we don’t usually get that opportunity. We usually perform and then go home.”
White and Brown have enjoyed working with each other on the production.
“Gilbert’s approach to Dr. King is very heart-driven,” White said. “Anyone can imitate Dr. King’s voice and mimic his cadence, and that can easily become a caricature. But Gilbert really goes deep and gets to the heart of the man. We get to see his humanity and Gilbert does this expertly.”
Brown said finding King’s humanity in the performance isn’t possible without White’s interpretation of Camae.
“Karen is so quick with the material that it forces me as an artist to really be on my toes, and the piece demands it,” he said. “She sets such a fantastic level in her artistry and give it some mystery. That’s important because while people think they know who Dr. King is, but thanks to Camae, the audience gets to see his soul, his heart, his commitment and capacity to love.”
Brown and White look forward to performing “The Mountaintop” in Park City, and they hope audience members will enjoy and be inspired by the performance.
“A lot of things have changed and gotten better during the past 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination, but we’re seeing the same situations now in terms of race, in terms of the economy and workers’ rights,” Brown said. “So you can see there is still so much work to do.”
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