Martin Luther King’s humanity uncovered

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Mountaintop 1 . Lighting up the stage: Mwenya Kabwe and Sello Sebotsane in The Mountaintop.

Director Warona Seane knew she loved the play when she was asked to read it by Wilhelm Disbergen. But the stars were all in alignment for this one. When she started casting, she got her dream team – Sello Sebotsane (Big Dadda) and Mwenya Kabwe (Yellowman).

The play is The Mountaintop, which was crowned with the Olivier Award in 2010 for best new play on the London stage, and had a run on Broadway with acting luminaries Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett. Not that anyone in the local production had seen any of the international productions.

Sebotsane plays the character role of Dr Martin Luther King jr on the night before his assassination in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Kabwe stars as the chambermaid who meets this legend staying in the motel, only to discover, in the course of their encounter, that Dr King is also, first and foremost, a man who struggles with fame, the problems he faces and his desire for a cigarette and some female company.

It is, of course, a hypothetical story about the iconic man’s last night alive, and what might have been going through his mind at the time.

For this director, it’s all about telling a particular story. She’s pleased the story comes from a female perspective, the play having been written by a young female African-American playwright, and that she has been given the chance to give her take on it.

Dealing with someone of the stature of Dr King, who everyone knows and admires, she likes the idea that the play examines the humanity of our heroes. “That’s what makes it relevant here too,” she says.

For the actors working with Seane, the production has its own dynamics.

“I feel cared for,” says the big man, which makes him feel free to try and to share his frustrations when things aren’t working. He says it is a matriarchal thing!

“Politically, it’s huge,” says Kabwe. “There’s a dearth of women directors, especially black women directors, and this is historically long overdue.”

She’s also thrilled that it is such a marvellous play, and one which is so beautifully written. “We don’t often get the chance to play such strong stuff. There’s something about this script.”

For all of them, this is the kind of work they want to do – the reason they love telling stories. It’s a play that makes you think about who you are and how you look at others.

“These are relatively new roles for us as black actors,” says Kabwe. “There’s something about this that’s not soft.” And that gives the story teeth and the company something to work with that excites them.

Playing the great man, Sebotsane describes his task as climbing a mountain. It might be an uphill ask, but it’s also an honour, and he has had his share of playing real people.

“It’s a dream,” he says. But “be careful what you wish for”, he says, with a wry smile directed at his director.

He has been watching film footage and listening to King’s speech patterns, but in the end he will inhabit his own man. It’s more about suggestions and references.

These three are up to the task. Just listening to them discuss their work, you know they’re on form.

Even when talking about accents, they have established that these are not where their focus lies. In time, the accents will come, but for now they’re more interested in telling the story.

“I have two formidable performers telling the story,” says a confident Seane.

What she’s excited about, and why she encourages people to see the play, is that they’re telling a story about someone regarded as a hero and showing him as a human being.

“We learn from that,” she says. She wants people to laugh and cry, but also to question themselves and the way they view others, especially those we put on a pedestal.

Kabwe says it’s a story of someone regarded as a heroic martyr, someone who has been elevated to the position of a deity, and the play encourages us to grapple with the humanity of these iconic figures. “Imagine it and then live it,” she says.

We have a legacy of heroes in this country, says Sebotsane, and this is what makes the play so intriguing.

Having heroes throws up all kinds of questions. Do we just assume our heroes are right because of who they are and what they represent?

They will put you on the edge of your seat, they promise. So buckle up and then judge for yourself.

But there’s a caveat, says Seane. It’s quite a tale, and is heavy on language and spirituality.

• The Mountaintop, written by Katori Hall, runs at The Market from tomorrow until July 21.

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