To The Mountaintop

. January 28, 2020.
Director Rick Clever says that Jesse Duckworth (pictured here), the actor undertaking the main role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has “fallen right into the rhythm of King.” Photo Credit: Justin Shivak
Director Rick Clever says that Jesse Duckworth (pictured here), the actor undertaking the main role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has “fallen right into the rhythm of King.” Photo Credit: Justin Shivak

New ACT show puts a human face on an icon

The man enters his motel room, hoping to rest and write after a long day. He sends his friend to buy him a pack of cigarettes. He orders room service. A maid comes to the door and catches his eye. They talk, they flirt. It becomes clear something deeper is happening, and not just because of where this is, when this is and who he is. This is room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, on April 3, 1968. He is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and this is his last night on Earth.

That sets the scene for The Mountaintop, an enthralling, often funny, frequently controversial play by Katori Hall. Performed in a staged reading by Actors Collaborative Toledo (ACT) on February 15 and 16 at Trinity Episcopal Church, “The Mountaintop is a study of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night before his assassination,” explains director Rick Clever. “He’s just finished his speech to the Memphis Sanitation Workers, the ‘I have been to the mountaintop’ speech. And it’s just as he’s coming back to his hotel room and working on his next speech, which he has tentatively called ‘Why America is going to hell.’”

On a pedestal

The Martin Luther King depicted in The Mountaintop is not without care. He is frustrated. He is flawed. He is human. And it’s that depiction that is key to what Hall accomplishes as a playwright, and what Clever and his actors hope to bring to this production.

“We tend to put our heroes on a shelf, in all aspects. We put people on a pedestal and think, because they’re doing these extraordinary things, they’re fighting for these extraordinary causes, that they’re not human, that they don’t have human foibles,” Clever continues.

“The stuff that’s in there is general knowledge. But people don’t usually want that part of King’s life publicized. He was a bit of a womanizer. He did drink. He did smoke. And all those things are in the show, but people often don’t want to see the other side of an extraordinary person. They don’t want to see the ordinary— they want to recognize just the extraordinary.”

A member of the ACT board, Clever read the show when the group was considering it for its season. “I was originally brought on just to be the narrator/stage manager,” he said. “And then Jeff Albright asked me to direct it.”

Into the rhythm

Though the show will be nominally a reading, with the actors sometimes carrying scripts, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t making an effort to embody their roles— particularly Jesse Duckworth, who undertakes the crucial role of King himself.

“He’s fallen right into the rhythm of King,” Clever said. “Everybody knows, his speeches are so out there, everything has been taped, recorded, played back. And Jesse’s really working hard to be King, but also to make the role his character of King. It’s not an imitation, it’s Jesse’s portrayal of Dr. King.”

Some may see putting a human face on one of the 20th Century’s most idolized figures as being disrespectful to the man and what he accomplished. But to Clever, the show’s message is the exact opposite. “My thoughts are, I think it’s more inspiring that, yes, he is an ordinary person. You are an ordinary person. You can do extraordinary things as an ordinary person,” Clever says, adding, “Everybody’s human and everybody can do those extraordinary things.”

$10 in advance, $12 at the door
8pm | Saturday, February 15
3pm | Sunday, February 16
Trinity Episcopal Church, 316 Adams St.
419-205-0409 | act419.org