We dont always like to be reminded that some of our gods were once only human.
But The Mountaintop, a new drama about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Jubilee Theatre, does not shy away from doing just that.
People who marched and lived with Dr. King are not necessarily ready for a realistic portrait of him. We are married to the icon, says Tre Garrett, artistic director of Jubilee, who is directing this production. But if we do not allow him to be human, we miss his true greatness.
Garrett explains that this 2009 play by Katori Hall, which won an Olivier award (the British equivalent of a Tony award) in 2010 for best new play, presents King behaving and speaking in ways that do not gibe with his image as a crusading hero-cleric. It is perhaps telling that this play, written by an American playwright, premiered in England. When it came to Broadway in 2011, with Samuel L. Jackson as King, Garrett said it received decidedly mixed responses over its four-month run.
Will people walk out? Probably. Some people may be offended by it, says Garrett, adding that film director Oliver Stone had planned to adapt the script before deciding it was too hot to handle.
But, despite the controversy surrounding the play (which has been produced steadily around the country since it left Broadway), Garrett feels this is an important work and he fought hard to present it.
I struggled to get this piece. I tried three times to get this piece and was turned down three times, says Garrett.
Then, Garrett did something extraordinary: He asked some of the artistic directors at competing theaters in the area to write letters to the plays rights holders on his behalf.
The director said that some of them, including Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty, did so, and that is what did the trick.
I am still surprised we were able to get this play, says an obviously grateful Garrett.
A night in a life
Garrett thinks that presenting King in a new light, as this show does, is needed.
There is some truth telling that has to be done. Dr. King may be the most unfamiliar familiar African-American in our history. Because all we know is what is celebrated in the speeches and news clips, Garrett says.
This drama does not include re-creations of any of Kings famous speeches or reenactments of acts of civil disobedience. Instead, it focuses on April 3, 1968, the last night of his life, in Room 306 of Memphis Lorraine Motel. There is only one other character: a maid named Camae.
Garrett and the cast would not reveal much about her.
My characters job is really important. She is equally significant [to Coretta Scott King, who is not depicted in the play], says Ashley Wilkerson, the actress playing the part.
Also, dont expect actor Bryan Pitts, who is playing King, to do an impersonation.
A friend of mine said, I cant wait to see this play, because you are three times as big as Dr. King was, says Pitts. But I am not worried about looking and sounding like him. I am more concerned with capturing the essence of the man. So we wont get into the at-the-pulpit-with-sweating-brow Dr. King that you may find on YouTube.
This production promises to be so controversial that Garrett sent a letter to subscribers about the shows content, asking them to keep an open mind.
So, given that the show carries so much baggage, why is Garrett willing to present it as his theaters celebration of Black History Month?
When I got here, I said that one of the things Im most interested in is national exposure for Jubilee Theatre. It is very important to me that we participate in the national conversation of theater, explains Garrett, who worked for Walt Disney Entertainment and at Washington, D.C.s Kennedy Center before taking the reins at Jubilee in 2011.
Apparently, that holds true even if the conversation may become a bit awkward at times. But Garrett hopes that, rather than taking offense, patrons will have an experience with the play that parallels that of his leading lady.
Hes a man who I thought I knew something about, says Wilkerson. But he is so incredibly layered and so incredibly complex. I have long read and have studied this man, but I appreciate him now more than I ever have in my life.