Watching Abdul-Khaliq “A.K.” Murtadha portray Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “The Mountaintop” is a bit like being visited in a dream by Reverend King himself. “The Mountaintop,” staged by the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, imagines the slain civil rights leader’s last conversation at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Emerald Rose Sullivan stars as Camae, a maid at the motel who is sent to serve the Reverend King a cup of coffee as he composes another of his rousing speeches.
Murtadha and Sullivan share the stage for 90 uninterrupted minutes as they learn about one another’s lives and swap ideas about the future of the civil rights movement. Their discussion takes some unexpected turns which serves to give us an unencumbered glimpse into the life of one of the most revered yet often misunderstood figures in United States history.
In this the fiftieth year since Dr. King’s death, it seems we need his wisdom and leadership more than ever. While many of us assumed the election of the first black president was a version of the famed “mountaintop” that MLK longed to reach, this past year has taught us that that journey is far longer than we may have realized.
This was our third time seeing Murtadha in the role of MLK. Twice he was in a supporting role on the Asolo Repertory stage in plays about President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s struggle to pass civil rights legislation. Murtadha’s even and steady MLK was the moral center of both “All the Way” and “The Great Society,” and arguably the stand out performance of each production. Yet in “The Mountaintop” he was able to explore all the nuances of the iconic leader by bringing us into a private moment in his finest performance yet.
Sullivan captured all the fire in Camae particularly in a truly magnificent monologue delivered in King’s shoes and coat pacing back and forth on the motel bed. She also kept the heavy subject matter of the play light and surprisingly very funny delivering some of the best irreverent lines. In the presence of a legend, Camae holds her own which is impressive indeed.
It was prescient that the brilliant Nate Jacobs chose “The Mountaintop” for this remarkable season. King’s message of radical love and his belief that a brighter future lies ahead makes him a beacon of hope in our dark and unstable times. He hoped to join us on our journey toward social equity and justice, but we need him now to help light the way.