Katori Hall's Award-Winning "The Mountaintop" Comes to Springfield Contemporary Theatre

Oct 15, 2016

Katori Hall's award-winning fictional drama about the final hours of Martin Luther King's life, "The Mountaintop," begins a three-week run at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza.
Credit (Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)

Springfield Contemporary Theatre's SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza will present the drama "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall, directed by Rick Dines, October 14-30.  This Olivier Award-winning drama about leadership, legacy, mortality and the man behind the myth is set on April 3, 1968, when an exhausted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. retires to his room, #306, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after delivering the prophetic ‘Mountaintop’ speech at the Mason Temple during the sanitation workers’ strike.  Director Rick Dines calls Hall’s play “a historical fiction of sorts... I guarantee you parts of this did not happen (in real life)!”

Dr. King calls down for room service, and strikes up a conversation with Camae, the motel maid who brings up a cup of coffee for him.  That’s the basis of this two-character play.  They talk about “stuff in their personal lives, stuff about the (civil rights) movement—all kinds of things,” says Rick Dines. “And as this conversation unfolds there’s a major revelation and shift, that she might not be who she says she is.  And the second half of the show takes a very different turn. It’s a very dramatic piece, a very poignant piece, and surprisingly a very funny piece.” At first blush one might think, oh, it’s the night before his assassination—this is going to be really heavy. And in fact, the tension of knowing what’s about to happen to Dr. King overrides the whole show for the audience—but as Rick says, “he (King) doesn’t know that.”

The irrepressible Tony Wheeler could almost be said to have prepared for this role his whole life. “I’m what you call a ‘Jamerican.’” Tony’s parents immigrated to Kansas City, Missouri from Jamaica. “I lived in the hood... and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the hood, but they are not very much appreciative of things that are maybe different!  So I had a rough time at school. I was always getting made fun of.  At recess they’d pull grass out of the ground and go, ‘Hey dude—this is money in your country!’” Yes, kids can be cruel....

But Tony’s life changed significantly around the age of 12.  Black History Month had just been established, and for the first-ever Black History assembly at Ervin Junior High School in Kansas City, they auditioned students to play significant African-American figures like Rosa Parks—and MLK. That was all Tony needed to hear. “The one thing my mother always had was record albums of all of Martin Luther King’s speeches.  I had heard the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech every single Sunday morning from (early) childhood. So I thought, ‘I can do that.’ I walked up on that stage, and I’m telling you the jokes started: ‘Aww, it’s gonna be Jamaican Martin Luther King, listen to him—I have a dream, mon!’  And I remember I got angry.”

At this point Tony launches into an utterly flawless imitation of Dr. King’s voice, speech cadence and his powerful oratory style in some lines from the “I Have a Dream Speech.”  After he delivered these same lines in front of the kids at his junior high, “it was dead silent. My teacher, she had tears in her eyes. She said, ‘the part of Martin Luther King has officially been closed!  Come here, little boy!’ and she hugged me! And I performed that in front of 500 people, and I tell you, everything for me changed at that moment. I got a standing ovation, and they come to me and they say, ‘How did that voice come out of this little 12-year-old kid?’  Everything changed.  I walked down the hallway and (the kids) said, ‘Oh, that’s that Jamaican kid—yeah, he’s a great actor!’  So it’s really come full circle.”

Tony notes that he is 38 years old, and at this point Martin Luther King was 39.  “And he was mildly out of shape, which kind of works out for me—I’m a ‘method’ actor, what can I say?” he jokes.

It didn’t take much persuasion on Rick Dines’ part to get Tony to take on the role, especially after he read the script.  In fact it was Tony who inspired Rick to produce The Mountaintop, when he related that story from his junior-high days. Says Rick, “I immediately pulled out my phone—because I was familiar with the play but I hadn’t seen a production of it—and I ordered a copy of the script on the spot. As soon as it came in I called Tony and said, ‘I have this script I want you to read!’ Tony is probably doing the best performance I’ve ever seen out of him, the most nuanced performance.”

As we said, this is a two-character play, and working opposite Tony Wheeler as the maid Camae is Amber Renae.  Tony simply says, “Man—wow!” when asked about her.  Rick elaborates about her background and training. “Amber has a theater degree from down in Texas. She and her husband moved to L.A. and then moved here because he’s getting his Masters at MSU. This is only her second show in Springfield, and I am telling you, what a talent we have in her! She’s just dynamic and funny.”

Tony insists that if you haven’t been to the theater in a while—or never seen a stage play—“this is it.  This is the one you’ve got to see.” Rick Dines adds that it’s become one of the most-produced plays in the country, not just because two-character plays are popular with small theater companies, but because “it’s really that good.”

This show contains some adult language and content. Performances will be Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm.  For ticket information call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org. Tickets range from $20-$25, with $10 student rush tickets available before each performance.