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February 22, 2024

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Play combines history, humanity in portraying Martin Luther King Jr. on eve of assassination

The University’s theatre department will present the play “The Mountaintop,” a fictitious retelling of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth, this weekend.

Director Eileen Cherry-Chandler said she was a teenager when King was assassinated. She said “The Mountaintop” was a way to show students and people who didn’t live through the Civil Rights Movement what America was like at the time. It also gives the audience a candid look of what King was like, she said.

“What’s controversial [is the portrayal] of King,” Cherry-Chandler said. “It tears away at the monument of [him] and gets to the man.”

Cherry-Chandler said the play is a very human story laced with history lessons. It also deals with fear, which the audience can see when King checks his phone for wire-tapping before making a phone call.

“King was hounded by the FBI as a way to undermine the Civil Rights Movement,” Cherry-Chandler said. “[The movement] tested everyone’s strength.”

Cherry-Chandler said the play is also about grace and the sacrifices King made for the Civil Rights Movement.

The setting is room 306 of Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968. At some points during the play when the door is opened, the audience can see a replica of the balcony where King was shot on April 4, 1968.

The actual room at Lorraine Motel has been set up as a monument to King. According to Steve Boone, the play’s scenic designer, the setting is rooted in history but isn’t an exact replica.

“If you see news photos [of King’s room on April 4, 1968] and see how [room 306] is set up now, the monument is different from the original room,” Boone said.

The performance opens with a mixture of Mahalia Jackson’s “I’m on My Way to Canaan” and beginning excerpts from King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Cherry-Chandler picked African American gospel music that was played during the time period of the play. She said that Mahalia Jackson was one of King’s favorite singers.

“The Mountaintop” will be sophomore Alexis Mann’s first performance. She is playing Camae, a hotel maid.

“I’m nervous but excited,” Mann said. “But it’s good because nerves are good, or else something’s wrong.”

The play will also be Lance Green Jr.’s first performance. He is playing the role of Martin Luther King Jr. Although Green isn’t a student, Cherry-Chandler said that the theatre department encourages anyone to audition for plays.

“I’m most excited about people seeing King’s down to earth side,” Green said. “And that no matter how great the iconic figure, [King] is still a normal person as well.”

The room where the play is held is a blackbox style theatre. Since the play takes place in one room only, there is no raised stage. The first row of audience seating is on the same level as the stage.

Margaret McCubbin is the costume designer for the play. She said the play is small and intimate, so the theatre is perfect.

“If you’re in a big house, you’re distanced,” McCubbin said. “This play is best in a small space.”

The play will be held in Eva Marie Saint Theatre at the Wolfe Center. Opening night was Thursday but more performances are Friday through Sunday at 8 p.m. There will also be additional 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

According to Cherry-Chandler, playwright Katori Hall’s insight into a time when she didn’t live can “open up people’s understanding of the history.”

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