31/10/2017 - 11/11/2017
1968. The Lorraine Motel Room in Memphis, Tennessee. Room 306. Martin Luther King has just delivered what will be his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. In his hotel room, he waits for an aide to bring him some cigarettes, but instead he meets Camae, a feisty maid who is not what she seems.
Pasifika Theatre movement F.C.C is bringing internationally acclaimed play The Mountaintop by African American playwright Katori Hall to the stage with an all Pasifika cast and director. Based on a fictional account of Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, The Mountaintop is an award-winning historical imagining just as relevant in today’s tumultuous times of Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville as in 1960s America.
Written by Katori Hall, the work has never been performed in New Zealand or by Pasifika actors in the starring roles.
BASEMENT THEATRE, Auckland
31 Oct – 11 Nov
$20 – $25
Starring David Fane and Nicole Whippy
1 hr 15 mins
The Baton Passes on
Review by Nathan Joe 08th Nov 2017
I had the pleasure of witnessing FCC’s staged reading of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop a couple of years back. It was, to put it lightly, a stunner. With limited rehearsals and scripts in hands, the performance managed to create something truly magical, transporting us to Dr. Martin Luther King’s last night on Earth in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel before his assassination. Here, with the same cast from the reading under Fasitua Amosa’s direction, David Fane and Nicole Whippy, give us a fully formed production.
In the publicity for the show, much has been made of the fact that this has never been performed in New Zealand or by Pasifika actors. While the former acknowledgement is noteworthy, the latter strikes me as opening up a can of worms. Not casting African Americans is an understandable constraint within New Zealand, but to celebrate the casting of a different ethnicity begs a wider discussion of the problems of cross-racial casting, even if they might pass for one another on stage. [FCC Founder Victor Rodger wrote about this issue on The Big Idea] [More]
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Mountaintop offers candid view of King Jr’s last hours
Review by Janet McAllister 03rd Nov 2017
Martin Luther King Jr’s last night on earth may not sound like the most cheery subject but this Olivier award-winning two-hander by Memphis playwright Katori Hall is a surprisingly warm and humorous handling of some serious and interesting themes.
Played by Dave Fane, Dr King is shown as fallible and human. He blasphemes over his smelly shoes; he smokes the motel maid’s cigarettes, flirting outrageously while castigating his wife for forgetting to pack his toothbrush. He’s needy, vain, insecure and fearful: a real hero – with stinky feet of clay.
Directed by Fasitua Amosa, both actors are superb. Fane uses the dinky motel furniture to emphasise King’s presence and makes a game attempt at King’s patrician-sounding drawl (the maid calls him a “bougie Negro”).
Nicole Whippy gives an exceptional performance … [More]
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Assured and powerful performances exhilarate
Review by Leigh Sykes 01st Nov 2017
While studying at Columbia University, Katori Hall and her acting partner were given the task of finding a two person scene that suited their physical type. Both African-American women, the partners soon found that their choice of scenes was extremely limited. At that point, Hall decided that “If I really want[ed] to see myself in all my beauty and complexity staring back at me I would have to do it myself.”
After graduating from Columbia she enrolled in the American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University and from there the Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace playwriting programme. A story told to her by her mother inspired her to write The Mountaintop: a play that imagines how Martin Luther King spent his last evening on earth, prior to being assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The play debuted in London in 2010 and went on to win the Olivier Award for Best New Play.
The play is now brought to the New Zealand stage by Victor Rodger’s entity FCC (Flow, Create Connect), whose aim is to enable ‘Pasefika practitioners especially [to] engage with meaty, complex texts that put them at the heart of the narrative’. Director Fasitua Amosa has said that he was drawn to the play since it is “centralised on a non-white character, and non-white actors would be talking about non-white issues.”
As the play begins, Martin Luther King (Dave Fane) is returning to his modest motel room (a beautifully detailed set by Donna Marinkovich), having just given what will be his last speech – “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” – at the Mason Temple on April 3rd 1968. He is intent on working on his next sermon, moving around the room, trying out phrases in the heightened vocal style so familiar from his recorded speeches.
Although the vocal style is familiar, we soon learn that this is no untouchable and distant icon. Instead this is a very human Dr King, who is appalled by the potent smell of his shoes, frets about how long it’s taking for someone to bring him a pack of cigarettes and who is scared of the thunder that frequently sounds through the storm outside the motel room.
Fane convincingly captures the essence of King both physically and vocally, giving an outstanding performance that mixes gravity, humour and pathos with a quick wit and a playful spirit.
It is apparent that King is aware of his own image, using his instantly recognisable and famously expressive voice to phone room service and persuade someone to send him a cup of coffee, despite being told that room service has finished for the day. The coffee arrives in the hands of Camae (Nicole Whippy), an energetic and vivacious maid on her first day on the job.
Whippy is captivating as Camae. She is by turns impressed, flirtatious, disapproving, embarrassed by her inability to stop cussing in front of ‘Preacher King’ and aggressive in her attitude towards the white people who look down on her and all other African-Americans.
Camae does not always agree with King’s approach to the Civil Rights cause, and the two characters energetically and flirtatiously trade points of view. An attraction is apparent between the two, as we ponder the mystery of who Camae really is. She debates with King in a spirited and often radical manner; her fiery speech advocating violent resistance rather than King’s more passive approach is a particular highlight. Whippy delivers a tremendous performance of this funny, belligerent, empathetic character.
The quality of performances is matched by the quality of the writing and Amosa’s direction. The directing is assured, highlighting moments of great fun and energy as well as revealing moments of great pathos. The pace is brisk where needed and the revelation of Camae’s true nature is confidently handled.
Although the play’s subject matter could be seen as heavy, there is a lightness of touch in the writing and direction that allows us to fully engage in this sometimes surreal contemplation on a character we think we know. By showing us King’s contradictions, the play could be seen as reducing his stature, but instead we see that it is his very humanity that makes his deeds and legacy so powerful.
King tells us he is frightened, he is flawed and he is uncertain if he is doing enough. He desperately wants to see his cause become a reality and he fears he will not live to see it happen. It is King’s vulnerability that makes him so admirable and Fane’s performance of this beautifully constructed role is exhilarating to watch. In his despair at the pain and pressure of leading this cause King asks, “Why me?” and his only answer is, “Why not?”
This is a beautifully and powerfully written play, which is almost frighteningly relevant today as much as ever. As Camae powerfully and vividly delivers a syncopated poem of the events since King’s assassination, we hear again a litany of injustices, atrocities and advances as the Civil Rights ‘baton passes on’.
This is a play that must prompt conversations about the parallels between Pasefika in New Zealand and African-Americans in the US; about the treatment of minorities and about the action that is necessary to fight injustice. The Mountaintop offers no easy solutions but calls on us to take notice and decide where we sit in relation to these issues. It is a play that deserves to be seen, with performances that will lift your heart with their power and assurance.
Go to see this play: if the standing ovation at this performance is anything to go by, I am confident you will not be disappointed.
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