The theater world has had to find creative ways to survive the scourge of COVID-19. Options have included live-steamed virtual performances, limited audience sizes—and rescheduled productions.
Dezart Performs dealt with the latter for its current offering, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, moving the performances from January to March due to the omicron surge. Though surely a painful decision, it worked out well—and now seems to be the perfect time for this play, Dezart’s first show at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club in more than two years.
The story, a reimagination of Dr. Martin Luther King’s last night alive, takes us back to a simpler, more innocent time—before Sept. 11, the epidemic of school shootings, Rodney King and George Floyd. The assassination of King seemed to confirm what the killing of John F. Kennedy suggested—a stark future was ahead.
It might have been a simpler time, but all was not rosy. Racism was rampant, and King was regarded with much suspicion. As the play opens on a rainy night in Memphis, King (Cortez Johnson) has just returned to the Lorraine Motel after a long day. He begins searching the room for bugs, wary of FBI surveillance. Exhausted and hoarse, King has just given the speech known as “The Mountaintop.”
Though a larger-than-life figure, King still has to deal with the mundane irritations of life on the road. He’s forgotten his toothbrush; he’s longing for a cigarette; and room service has shut down for the night. He is able to wrangle a cup of coffee, which he desperately needs to finish a speech planned for the following day.
Arriving with the coffee and a newspaper is an attractive young maid named Camae (Shanté DeLoach). The two engage in chit-chat and casual flirtation. It’s Camae’s first day on the job, and she’s seemingly star-struck by King. But she’s also feisty—swearing like a truck driver and commenting on King’s smelly feet. He is drawn to the young woman, and it seems that this encounter may end up confirming the icon’s reputation as a philanderer.
The conversation eventually deepens, and King’s vulnerabilities are revealed. He’s vain and insecure about his mustache. He’s also spooked by the loud claps of thunder, which seem to hint at the nature of his ultimate demise.
We eventually learn that Camae is not your typical motel maid. To reveal more would ruin the theater-goer’s experience.
Good casting is important in any production—but with a two-person play, when both characters are onstage nonstop for 90 minutes, it is crucial. Director Michael Shaw chose wisely here: Johnson and DeLoach are sheer perfection. Johnson is tall, strapping and charismatic, and he possesses the booming voice needed to portray an orator like King. He portrays King as what he was—a historic leader who helped change the world, and a flawed human being. He shows off the perfect balance of bravado and insecurity.
DeLoach owns the role of Camae. Petite, bubbly and spunky, she teases and challenges King, even suggesting that Malcolm X’s plan for societal change might have been better. One of the show’s highlights comes when Camae delivers her own speech “to the people,” looking almost childlike, standing on the bed, clad in King’s much-too-large jacket.
Johnson and DeLoach are consummate professionals, and the chemistry between the two is palpable. They each own the stage, yet manage to share it gracefully. They draw the audience into the story; we never see them “acting.” There were several occasions on opening night when you could literally hear a pin drop; that’s when you know you’re watching a superb play.
Looming over all of this is the inevitability of King’s assassination. We all know what’s coming; King seems to as well. He is painfully aware that there are people determined to stop his work, and that longevity is not in the cards for him.
Congrats to Shaw for guiding his actors to nuanced, effective performances. The Mountaintop comes across as a true collaborative effort; Shaw is not a micromanaging director. Excellent casting comes first, and then the director clearly allows the actors to bring much of their own visions to the roles. It works beautifully here.
Thomas L. Valach painstakingly re-creates a Memphis hotel room in 1968, with lots of gold and orange that was typical of the day. Lighting designer Derrick McDaniel and sound designer Clark Dugger do a fabulous job creating a realistic rainstorm, with lots of thunder and lightning. Dugger’s video montage toward the end of the play depicting the future is magnificent. There was only one tiny flaw in the production: one or two brief low-key moments when Johnson’s dialogue was difficult to hear.
Dezart’s production of The Mountaintop is funny, tragic, moving and effective. It makes us wonder how things may have been different had Martin Luther King lived. What would he think of voter suppression, the rise of white “supremacy,” and the police murders of so many Black men? Could he have helped prevent any of it? We will never know.
Some say the purpose of live theater is to promote social discourse and potential societal change. Dezart’s The Mountaintop has a good chance of doing just that.
Dezart Productions’ production of The Mountaintop is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $37 to $42, and the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.