All God's Children Got Wings
Katori Hall's The Mountaintop
Young Vic | London
directed by Roy Alexander Weise
This is what it’s all about. They say good theatre should leave you feeling as giddy as a bottle of wine: this production does just that. You may even need a bottle of the real stuff after JMK Award-winning director Roy Alexander Weise takes you on his rapturous historical rollercoaster. It may have only been six years since Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop premiered in London and won its Olivier, but this breathtaking piece proves once again it has wings. In the hands of Weise, it soars.
Weise grabs us with an electrifying start, thanks to George Dennis’ bracing music (which gets even better) and Lizzie Powell’s extraordinarily expansive lighting. Powell whips up a whole world from The Clare’s small space, as we find ourselves in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the night before the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. King of course has no knowledge of this, and there is a bittersweet beauty about the way he rehearses his speeches as he urinates, checks for government bugs in the phone, balks at his own stinking feet. All the while he awaits the arrival of cigarettes and coffee and death.
Cue beguiling hotel maid Camae, on her first day of the job (“I’m better at cleaning up other people’s shit than my own”). She is sassily star-struck to meet Dr King – lightly lecherous, nicotine-craving, all-too human creature that he is. She’s not perfect either, as she quickly admits: “I’ve got a mouth filthier than a sailor with the clap.” But Camae has more than curses up her sleeve. She, charms and riles him with ferocious rhetoric of her own, lets slip his old Christian name, conjures up liquor and cigarettes. “Civil Rights’ll kill you before those Pall Malls do,” she says, darkly. Is she an FBI agent? A militant Black Panther? A member of the Nation of Islam in the pocket of Malcolm X? The truth is even more curious, and it is a testament to Hall’s ravishing writing that she pulls off such an audacious twist. What begins as speculative history slips into sinister thriller, and then suddenly becomes something else altogether. It splices the warmth of an old MGM classic with a shadowy dystopia where Black Lives Matter is still a message that, however incredibly, people need to be reminded of.
Weise showers us with moments of magic, both theatrical and emotional, drawing outstanding performances from his two actors. Gbolahan Obisesan is remarkable as King, giving the public saint an engagingly human face. He is a contradiction: a playful, weary womaniser, yes – but also a conscientious hero, haunted by the murder of sixteen-year old Larry Payne at one of his marches. “For garbage-men?” asks Camae. “Sanitation workers,” he corrects. He tussles movingly with guilt and doubt and the ransacking riots caused by his protests (“We were meant to be marching for a living wage, not for colour televisions!”) Obisesan’s portrayal gives all the heart and humanity that King deserves, and then some.
Then there is Ronke Adékoluejo as Camae. “It might be nonsense coming out of other ladies’ mouths,” she says, “but when it comes out of mine it’s poetry.” And what poetry Adékoluejo provides, both physically and lyrically. Hers is a face of a hundred expressions, a voice with as many inflections, all of it a delight to behold. The production’s movement is effortlessly fluid, but Adékoluejo’s physicality, silkily sultry then violently explosive, is something else. Watch this one: she’s a star on the rise.
Weise pulls trick after trick out of the bag, and probably the best pillow fight you’ve ever seen on stage (Jenni Jackson’s movement, fantastic). But he also creates that mesmerising thing that can evade even the starriest of casts – two people really speaking to each other, as if no one else is there. It’s been some time since I’ve heard such sobs in the audience. Beautiful and heartrending work.
Even Dr King had his faults, and this is the idea the production leaves you with. It still dizzies your thoughts, days afterwards: our faults do not matter, not so much as passing along the baton of goodwill. See this, and take it up.
photo | ©David Sandison