The Unicorn Takes Us to ‘the Mountaintop’

The final show of the current Unicorn season is an intriguing re-imagining of the circumstances surrounding one of the most famous moments in American history. This is one of those shows where you don’t want to hear too much about it before you see it yourself.
The Mountaintop is about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before his assassination in 1968. He has finished his “Mountaintop” speech and heads back to his Memphis hotel room. After sending his assistant off to get cigarettes, King encounters the hotel’s housekeeper. He invites her into his room, and the two have a wide-ranging conversation that runs from preaching to civil rights to theology.
The play takes great pains to make King a regular man, and not an unapproachable icon. In the first five minutes, we hear him go to the bathroom, comment on his smelly feet, and even swear. The play also acknowledges King’s love of women and willingness to cheat on his wife — he and the housekeeper engage in more than a little flirting. Speaking of the housekeeper, she’s a fiery, foul-mouthed woman who is not intimidated by being in the famous man’s hotel room — she has her own ideas of what the country needs in order to solve the race problem.
Walter Coppage plays King. Wisely, he doesn’t try too hard to do an actual impersonation of him. That would get to be too distracting. No, Coppage has a natural charisma that makes it easy for us to accept the idea that the very human and imperfect man on the stage is the American martyr from the history books.
Coppage has met his match with the other actor on the stage. Chioma Anyanwu plays the housekeeper Camae. As expected, she shines in her role. Managing to be confident yet fragile, forthcoming yet cagey, Anyanwu could make the real Dr. Martin Luther King stop and listen to her.
The play takes place entirely in a hotel room. I’ve never been to the actual Lorraine Motel, but I would be willing to bet that the room that the Unicorn built on stage is a pretty close representation of the real room. It’s a perfect representation of a shabby 1960s hotel room. The set designers even managed to put grimy smears at the door’s light switch. It’s a fantastic recreation.
The Mountaintop is an oddly affecting story that asks us to imagine what King would have said and done just hours before his death. It’s an unusual play for several reasons, but I can’t say too much about that. It’s best that you go with an open mind and let yourself ask, “Well, what if?”
The Mountaintop runs through June 30 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. For tickets, go to Unicorn Theatre or call 816-531-PLAY (7529).

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