Produced by Underground Railway Theater
By Katori Hall
directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Cambridge) Sometimes, there’s a moment in a show that can make or break it. When that moment comes, the audience will divide accordingly. Maybe this turn is cheesy, too scary, or just a little off-kilter with the rest of the story. When it happens in At the Mountaintop, and the audience will know when it does, it redefines the sort of narrative being watched. The show starts out smart but softens into a peculiar if interesting mess.
Katori Hall’s two-man play concerns the late and well-loved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and his conversations with a hotel maid, Camae (Kami Rushell Smith). Like A Picasso by Jeffrey Hatcher, performed by The Salem Theatre Company last year, Central Square Theater’s At the Mountaintop concerns two personalities bouncing off each other in a contained space. Also like A Picasso, one happens to be famous and respected while the other, an intrigued woman, has slipped
through the cracks of history.
When he does it right, Parent reveals new, strange, and even sad dimensions to a world famous activist history had little time to know. Kami Rushell Smith, meanwhile, is just plain charming. She outshines Parent who, while talented, can’t seem to match her charisma. Smith was born to steal this sort of show.
Their interaction takes a turn for the cutesy, sure, but Smith never loses her enthusiasm. Repartee between her and Parent comes easily and often humorously.
Playwright Hall has a deft hand at suspense, too. Clues, some more subtle than others, indicate where we are in Dr. King’s personal history. The possible twists kept me guessing as the narrative progressed. I was disappointed that the action in the last third sat so strangely with me. It feels like Hall began to write a second play right before she finished the first.
Still, the conclusion is satisfying. It’s the kind of finale that carries weight, asking not just to look at the man around whom the play is based but to look at the history in which he has played a part. Even if the story could have afforded another re-write, the last moments of At the Mountaintop are stunning.