By James Foritano
Cambridge, MA-The actor, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who plays Martin Luther King in The Underground Railway Theater’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” certainly looks like a sad-sack Everyman, as he emerges on stage.
As Parent/King closes the door of Room # 306 of the Lorraine Motel, he is turned away from his audience, bawling out into the April-mean weather of Memphis, Tennessee that he craves a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes.
It is the 3rd of April 1968, and King has just given the speech of his life — literally. He has prophesied his own death in ringing phrases, but now his powerful baritone rings out only with the urgency of his addiction.
We can almost smell Martin’s smoky breath as it urges an anonymous member of his entourage to bring only “Pall Mall” cigarettes.
This is certainly the ‘back-side’ of history as well as that of Martin Luther King. And playwright Hall continues, relentlessly, to ‘undress’ Martin, from his unremarkable back-side and banal urges — another of which is black coffee — to the stinky feet and hole-riddled socks he reveals as he slumps onto the motel bed.
Parent embodies the icon ‘off his pedestal’ to a downright painful extent. He is distracted, fixated, even slovenly, as he rattles off the walls of this downtown flea-trap to disappoint handily every pretension of a historical figure as well as the expectations of his theater audience. And this just as his national holiday approaches. Great timing, Martin!
A willing accomplice to this painful demolition is the young and sassy chambermaid, dead-new on the job, who emerges with Martin’s coffee and — answer to his more worldly dreams — a crumpled pack of Pall Malls tucked into a perky bosom.
There has to be nuance in the pas-de-deux that follows between King/Parent and Kami Rushell Smith as chambermaid in order that a more balanced Martin Luther King may emerge naturally from this mélange of smoke, coffee and flirtation.
Indeed, in this reviewer’s opinion, a combination of dialogue, plot-twists, pacing, on the part of playwright Hall, and, not least, acting savvy on the part of the duo who communicate these notes enables the audience to see Martin as both, emphatically “Just a man…” as well as, in glimpses, “What a man!”
There is a penetrating zest that dialogue and delivery communicate between these two figures — a chambermaid and an orator and leader — which goes beyond their job descriptions, beyond the confines of a motel room where they could easily and quite happily be trapped in class and gender distinctions.
What better venue for a “great man” and an ingénue/chambermaid to play first and second fiddle in a tasty but forgettable duet? Opportunity knocks, after all, and must be answered.
Unfortunately, for a quick tryst, both Martin and maid are too aware of multiple selves jousting in this seemingly comfortable arena. The bed waits in queen-sized splendor to be disturbed while two un-simple souls trade riddles.
Death haunts us all, as mortals, but haunts especially those who court it — MLK, for instance. Could this simple chambermaid be also an ‘angel of death?’
An absurd reach for anyone with a less haunted imagination and with less reason to feel haunted assumes a palpable reality for him as for us.
Martin winces at every loud sound that happens within or without the thin walls of room #307. And the ‘chambermaid’ drops a resolutely ‘off color,’ sexpot demeanor to feel Martin’s pain as though she understands it beyond her years and experience — to speed to him, as it were, on wings?
Abruptly, Parent and Kami Smith — MLK and ‘chambermaid’ — drop from allegory into their roles of man and woman, haunted by no more and no less than sex, coffee and cigarettes.
These transitions wouldn’t work and sometimes the seams do seem to show–dipping into melodrama — except for the zest with which the actors embrace so much of themselves that their different dimensions leave echoes in our sensibility.
The chambermaid who switches her backside so bewitchingly around this tawdry bed/sitting room can switch roles, pitch-perfectly, from sweet simple to prosecutor/interrogator — of herself as well as of MLK — that we empathize with Martin’s shocked “Who are you?” As well as with his unspoken “Who are we?”
The best take-away from this play is that we come to share with the actors and playwright the conviction that all is not as it seems with anyone or ‘anywhere’ — that exceptional moments in personal and public history can precede or follow a knock on the door that delivers nothing so momentous as our favorite addiction.
Or, as that other bard put it so memorably: “Readiness is all.”
Even at the Motel Lorraine!
(The Underground Railway Theater’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” continues through February 2 at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111.)