Theater review: The Mountaintop by Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective

Kirby Gibson and Drew Ryan in The Mountaintop Photo courtesy of Different Strokes

Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective delivers another socially minded, thought-provoking production with an intriguing Martin Luther King Jr. drama. The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall, explores the last night of King’s life from behind the door of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It is set on April 4, 1968. In the lonely early morning, King ponders what is to come next after delivering his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech. In 2011, it starred Samuel L. Jackson, in his Broadway debut.

King is given to moments of self-doubt, self-deprecation, and fear of things to come. Out of cigarettes, and needing to focus, he orders coffee from room service. Thunder rumbles ominously outside, as King paces uneasily. What follows, when Camae, the room service attended, arrives with his coffee, is a look at the human side of an iconic figure, with all his flaws and failings.

In the local production, onstage at BeBe Theatre through Saturday, June 18, Drez Ryan has the unenviable task of portraying King. Ryan gives a soft-spoken — if, at times, understated — rendering of King. He is likable insomuch as this performance feels like a younger, more humble version of King than the one we find in the early morning hours on the day of his death. It is difficult to take such an icon and peel back the layers of historic hindsight, and imbue it with simple humanistic qualities.

As Camae, Kirby Gibson gives us a view of the working class African-American community. She represents the masses who look up to King, but still face the daily struggles of racism in ways that he does not. With her fast-talking, free-spirited manner, she provides a differing perspective that challenges his in ways that take him off guard. King and the audience, are strongly attracted to her outer beauty and inner strength. Gibson’s energy as Camae is a stark contrast to Ryan’s far more melancholy King. She also punctuates the show with a powerful moment as King prepares to face his fate, accompanied by a slide show of the history that follows his death.

The script itself is intriguing, if somewhat peculiar. It starts as a powerfully intimate conversation behind closed doors, which makes for an exciting “what if?” moment in time. About midway through, however, it pivots into the more surreal. Without giving too much away, the show moves into the concept of God as a woman, and even includes references to cell phone technology of the future. The latter is a jarring moment, though it links the audience of today to this historic tale. It does feel out of place, but it somehow works and does not detract from the overall power and emotion of the show. Director Steph Hickling Beckman ably guides the production along that delicate balance.

Nathan Singer’s set design and Katy Hudson’s lighting design play a major part in the setting and mood. The space in the BeBe Theatre is limiting, and the scenic design is usually more suggested than literal. This show is an exception. It is so realistically rendered that viewers forget they are watching a show at times, and feel like they are seeing the proceedings through the wall of an actual motel.

WHAT: The Mountaintop
WHERE: BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St., differentstrokepac.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, June 18. Thursdays through Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. $18

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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