On the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., where sanitation workers were demanding respect and fair treatment.
If you go
WHAT: Pure Theatre’s “The Mountaintop” by Katori HallWHEN: 7:30 p.m. March 29, 30, April 4-6, 11-13 and 18-20; 2 p.m. April 7WHERE: Pure Theatre, 477 King St.COST: $30, $15 student rushMORE INFO: puretheatre.org, email@example.com, 723-4444
He spoke of the trials of history; he advocated economic boycott; he referred to Jesus and the dangers of the Jericho Road; and he shared an anecdote about the “demented black woman” who stabbed him with a letter opener at a Harlem bookstore in 1958, nearly puncturing his aorta.
He told those gathered that he had received various condolence letters after the attack, but remembered clearly only one of those notes. It had come from a local schoolgirl.
Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.
King said he, too, was glad he did not sneeze, for if he had sneezed, he would have missed so many of the remarkable achievements of the civil rights movement. And then, as he began to reach the end of his speech on that stormy April evening, King’s oratory lost some of its organized thrust.
“And they were telling me ... Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now.”
He referred to the threats, the dangers, the warnings. And then, in an emotional flourish, he uttered those prescient, moving words so many know by heart:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Afterward, he lingered to greet the laborers and others in attendance, then spent some time on the town, returning to his room, No. 306, at the Lorraine Motel, in the small hours of the morning.
He spent the next day at the motel, consulting with colleagues, strategizing on the phone and receiving updates about the court hearing then under way. By late afternoon, he was preparing for dinner when he stepped onto the balcony.
The shot came at 6:01 p.m.
All of this is the context and backdrop of Katori Hall’s 2011 Olivier Award-winning play, “The Mountaintop,” which opens in the black box of Charleston’s Pure Theatre on March 29, and runs through April 20.
The play itself is a supernatural imagining of what might have transpired inside Room 306 on that stormy night, a fictional rendering meant to humanize an iconic figure.
“There’s so much information out there, but there’s nothing that cuts to the core of how you deal with knowing that there’s a bullet waiting for you,” Hall told her alma mater’s Columbia Magazine in 2011. “I wanted to dramatically represent that in a way that could affect people, could move people, and, maybe, could change people’s lives. This man stepped up, in spite of. This man changed the world, in spite of.”
Sharon Graci, co-founder of Pure Theatre, is directing the production, which stars Kyle Taylor as King and Joy Vandervort-Cobb as Cammae, a maid unintimidated by the legendary man before her.
Graci said the play shows King assessing his efforts on Earth in a way that sheds light on personal concerns.
“It’s incredibly moving,” Graci said. “Even if you have only a rudimentary understanding of the life of Dr. King, Katori Hall has (presented) those main events in an accessible way.”
Pure’s production will include multimedia elements that speak to a modern audience, she said. But the focus always remains on “the rawness of the human condition,” Graci said. “The arts in general teach us about our humanity, they teach us to be humane.”
Vandervort-Cobb, who teaches theater, acting and stage management at the College of Charleston, and who directs some of its productions, said she’s been longing to work with Pure Theatre and quickly agreed to be in “The Mountaintop,” even if she had reservations about how to play a character written for a younger woman.
“But Sharon said she’s not going to deal with the age,” Vandervort-Cobb said. And this was fine with her. “I love the work they do. I love contemporary theater. I love the chances they take.”
It’s a difficult play: two characters, lots of dialogue and a sacred context of actual history. All of this presents a challenge to the actors, she said.
Graci and her actors have long discussions that lead to discoveries about character and theater, Vandervort-Cobb said. They break down the script and collaboratively explore its meaning.
The character Cammae is used to bring out King’s essential humanity.
“He was just a man. He felt real pain, had a family he loved. But he was carrying the weight of this movement,” she said.
In the play, King reveals how much he missed at home — birthdays, celebrations, watching his kids learn how to ride a bike, “because he was working for the world.”
“He was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to us, but he was Daddy to somebody,” Vandervort-Cobb said.
And some of the lines of the play are so poignant, it can be a challenge to stay in character, she said.
For example, Cammae asks King to name “one thing that Negro folks and white folks have in common.”
His response? “We’re all afraid.”
Graci said the play, which premiered in London to rave reviews and appeared on Broadway starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, is perfect for an intimate, 100-seat venue like Pure’s black box.
And it’s a good example of the company’s determination to remain focused on artistry, contemporary theater and cultivating a core group of talented actors, she said.
Now concluding its 10th season, Pure Theatre has struggled to find its niche over the years, both physical and artistic. Lately, Graci has enjoyed a sense of satisfaction. “I’ve been trying to put a finger on what happened for me,” Graci said. “One day I woke up and realized what we’ve been working toward has been accomplished.”
The foundation is built. The productions are drawing patrons. Now Pure will strive to improve, learn, stretch, challenge itself, Graci said.
“I’m done apologizing; not everything we do will appeal to everyone,” she said. “But this feels like coming home.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/ aparkerwriter.
Sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, Tenn., resumed their daily protests March 29, 1968, one day after a march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Violence during the march led the city to call in the National Guard.×
The former Lorraine Motel (now a museum), where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while standing on a second-floor balcony on April 4, 1968, is seen from a window across the street. The window is in a room adjacent to the room where confessed assassin James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot that killed King. A wreath on the balcony marks the spot where King was shot.×
Kyle Taylor acts out a scene at a rehearsal of “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall at Pure Theatre as director Sharon Graci looks on.×
Kyle Taylor (left) as the Rev. Martin Luther King and Joy Vandervort-Cobb rehearse “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall last week at Pure Theatre.×