Dion Johnstone

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. His name alone represents ideals of peace and perseverance against oppression. The achievements that canonized him as a legend and the rousing speeches that inspired millions were all centered on his steadfast philosophy of non-violence. 

Despite preaching love, his tragic assassination on the night of April 4, 1968, immortalized him as a martyr. Some speculate that the civil rights movement was able to gain momentum faster than if he’d lived. Yet, how many of his followers actually knew about the man who lived, breathed, and worried like the mortal he was? 
Playwright Katori Hall serves up a sliver of history and fantasia in Arts Club’s The Mountaintop. Her date-with-destiny play tantalizes audiences with glimpses into the private habits of the man known as Reverend King.

Dion Johnstone, Crystal Balint
[Dion Johnstone, Crystal Balint] 

On the day before his murder, King delivers his ominous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech which prophesizes his own death. The entire play takes place within Set Designer Ted Robert’s bona fide replica of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where King and his companions regularly lodged.   

A conservative 60’s colour palette serves as a banausic backdrop against the two vivid characters onstage. Catchpenny pumpkin drapes coordinate with thin tiger lily bedcovers that hover over worn harvest wheat carpets. When the action moves beyond this confined space and time, Robert’s adept set makes a seamless transition with some help from Candelario Andrade (Projection Designer) and Marsha Sibthorpe (Lighting Designer).

Dion and Crystal
After his death, rumours circulated that King spent his last night on earth with a woman other than his wife. Was this the case, and if so, who was she? Hall presents a re-imagined vision of events on the eve of April 4 as an intimate, intricate, unfolding dialogue between two people. An exhausted King has just returned from Mason Temple and is frazzled about writing another speech, desperate for Pall Mall cigarettes and some coffee. 

The King we observe is not the commanding public figure but an irritable, demanding, cussing wreck of a man. His demeanor changes with the arrival of his coffee, delivered by the beautiful Camae. King has an obvious sexual interest in the pretty maid with a mind as sharp as daggers and a tongue to match. Throughout the evening, Hall shows the audience a debased version of the exalted icon as he indulges in his vices: womanizing, drinking, smoking and cowering. 

Conversely, the status of the lowly maid is elevated as she shrewdly challenges King’s views and mocks his methods. However, Hall’s character revelations are only superficial. King’s frailties, like his inevitable fatality, already form a part of history. The play deconstructs his flaws rather than his psyche. Take away the grandeur of his name and this could be a story about any man, having a flirtatious night with an apparent temptress. Then again, maybe that was the point. 

Although ladened with glib exchanges and slick rebuttals, the narrative is wanting for a meaty exploration of King’s inner wranglings on the eve of his murder, especially after Camae makes a revelation of her own. 

Dion and Crystal
[SPOILER ALERT: skip this section to maximize the surprises of the play]
From the outset, the plucky damsel is shrouded in mystery and foreboding. One of the first clues arrives when she delivers the next day’s paper to King. Her droll and epigrammatic quips are peppered with prophesies. For example, she tells King that, although only 39, his heart is like that of a 60-year old and that he won’t be able to finish what he started. Her presence is almost like that of a jailer before the final execution. She arrives with more than just basic, sustaining coffee; she supplies him with his favorite brand of cigarettes (Pall Malls), liquid courage (whiskey) and consoling company in his darkest hour. 

At first, I thought the evolving storyline gave me a sense of déjà vu because we already know the outcome until I remembered that this scheme had been used before. This play mimics concepts from the 1980’s drama Highway to Heaven, complete with its own Gethsemane. 
Despite these hiccups, The Mountaintop is still compelling, humorous and relevant, especially considering today’s worldwide landscape of racial and religious cataclysm. MLK’s unfulfilled crusade – to find some way to love those who will not love us back – is just as vital today, if not more so, than it was 50 years ago. Dion Johnstone delivers a standout performance as a suspicious, yet unguarded MKL (wasn’t King left-handed?). His precision and artistry highlights his Shakespearean background as the Bard’s works are often swamped with florid speeches and beatific fantasies. 

Crystal and Dion

Johnstone plunges into these with deft and grace while igniting vocal sparring matches with Camae, played with delicate restraint by Crystal Balint. Not your stereotypical, unrefined motel maid, she sparkles as the sassy, outspoken Camae, who is not the least bit star struck by King. Beneath her garrulous exterior, Balint gingerly insinuates at the portentous purpose of her presence. Johnstone and Balint’s chemistry is playful, dynamic and poignant. Janet Wright directs The Mountaintop, stamping it with her own brand of panache and uncanny wit, worthy of her alter ego on Corner Gas
The Mountaintop offers a fantastical peek back into the past, an optimistic outlook towards the future, and may even gently prod audiences to contemplate their place in the present. Fusing a little history with myth and fiction, the journey through this play is worthwhile. The Mountaintop runs daily until March 14 (except Sundays) at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage.

Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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