During the current commemoration of Martin Luther King and his 'I Have a Dream' speech, critics are drawing attention to the difference between the idealized King we revere today and King, the man. A new play at Portland Center Stage, "The Mountaintop," focuses squarely on the latter. First produced in 2010 by Katori Hall -- and already considered a classic -- this two-person show features Rodney Hicks as King and Natalie Paul as a maid at the Lorraine Motel who brings him a cup of coffee on the night before his assassination.
The Skanner News spoke with Hicks about the play, the man, and society today.
The Skanner News: Mr. Hicks the last time we spoke with you, it was about your performance as Curly in the PCS production of Oklahoma! It was an all-Black show, and the point of it was really that staging was truer to the history of Oklahoma than most people have ever thought about. Now we're talking about a play called, "The Mountaintop." Can you speak to the history of this show? What is it about and why is it important?
Rodney Hicks: Katori Hall, a native of Memphis who is an amazing playwright and also actress herself, she wrote this play for her mother, really in a sense. Her mother was 15 years old at the time of Martin Luther King's last speech and she couldn't go because her mother said, "They're going to bomb the church." (Hall says today that her mother always regretted the decision not to attend King's sermon)
So the play was a legacy for her mother in a sense -- but also, bigger than that, King himself. In short she wanted to create a piece that wasn't about the 'god,' or the mythical being who we've made King to be (and rightfully so). She wanted to examine who would he be like as a human, and how can we see him as a man who puts his pants on the same way, who was this really ordinary man who did extraordinary things -- and that is really the crux of the play.
It's not the 'I Have a Dream' King; it's a more radical King, it's "warts and all," basically, and not this Christ-like figure which we have made him to be.
We have to remember that night in history, that night before his assassination, and everything leading up to it — he had dissention in his own movement, and not just the FBI and everything like that. Also he was suffering from depression, because of all the mounting pressures, being away from his family so much. So we are seeing King there.
TSN: And this is King at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, in 1968, the night before his assassination. Have you ever been to the Lorraine Motel?
RH: Yes I have!
TSN: Talk about that a little. Why is that moment in time so important? Because I have a feeling that a lot of people agree that, actually, the fate of the whole planet was changed. I think it is fair to say that.
You know there was so much leading up to his night before – he was receiving death threats already, and they were putting on the radio, that night before, where he was staying. Also on that night before, he and some friends were all planning to go to a soul food dinner. Just before the bullet was fired, as he stood with friends on the motel balcony, the last thing King said was about that planned dinner: "Make sure they play Precious Lord Take My Hand." The last words he said in public.
Assassination aside, when I found that out, it changed a lot of things for me. And his legacy – I mean he could have died in his sleep. His autopsy showed he had the heart of a 60 year old. And at that time, being 60-years-old is like being 90 in our times. You know?
If he'd died in his sleep, he would have been revered. But the fact that he was assassinated changed our whole course of history and the legacy of what he could have continued to do. He would have only been 80-something years old now.
TSN: You are an incredibly thoughtful actor. You're very deep in your portrayals – and the last time we saw you was in a piece of musical theater. How has this current part changed you?
RH: First, at the outset – I gained 20 pounds to play the role. Right? Back in April. And that was just the physical.
But it changed me in terms of really knowing who this man was. Not just, oh it's Martin Luther King Day, or smiling when I see Martin Luther King Boulevard. It changed me when I really delved deep into who this man was, and it made me see -- he could do all of these things and achieve all of that at 39? And then I looked at myself and said, I'm 39 right now.
And then you flash forward to all the things that are happening today, with the Voting Rights Act overturned, and the things that are happening in North Carolina, and Trayvon Martin – all of these things – you can't escape him, I can't escape him now.
I don't think I have ever been in a rehearsal process for a show or a Shakespeare play or musical where I actually broke down. It wasn't until this show, and I will leave you with this in terms of how it's changed me: It's opened me up even more to the possibilities, to the possibilities of the human condition.
There's a section in the show where Camae, the maid who is played brilliantly by Natalie Paul, she asks him: You're not afraid? And he says, basically: I've known fear my whole life. I've seen it in pulpits even in my own church. Fear doesn't bother me because I know if I'm still awake and still afraid, I'm still alive. I'm paraphrasing but you get the gist. He was afraid of many things—everything else but fear itself. That didn't bother him. But there were a lot of things that he was afraid of.
We were in the middle of that one speech and I just lost it. It was strange because it wasn't Rodney losing it -- it was a spiritual thing happening. And I just sunk to the floor. The same thing happened to our actress several days later—she had this moment as well.
I think this show, and under Rose Riordan's direction, I think people are going to be touched in a whole other way that they cannot fathom. I really do.
You will stop thinking that you're watching a play. And that's her goal.
"The Mountaintop" opens for previews Saturday, Aug. 31, and runs through Oct. 27. For ticket information go to www.pcs.org/mountaintop, or call the box office at 503-445-3700.