By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Like most men you ain’t gone be able to finish what you started. — The Mountaintop
The play that launches Shadow Theatre’s delayed three-play live season Thursday is named for one of Martin Luther King’s most celebrated speeches. And the great man himself (Ray Strachan) is one of its two characters. The other is a mysterious, surprisingly un-awestruck housekeeper (Patricia Cerra) on her first day on the job.
The Mountaintop, a 2009 play by the then-unknown young American playwright Katori Hall (who won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for The Hot Wing King), takes us to room 306 in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of a seminal moment in the history of American civil rights. It’s April 3 1968, the night before King’s assassination, in the city where he has just delivered a speech in support of striking sanitation workers.
The history of the play is unexpected: it premiered, oddly enough, in a London fringe theatre before its starry Broadway incarnation (Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett). And surprising, too, is the way the encounter between King and the housekeeper Camae unfolds into a confrontation with a magic realism reverb (the secret of that route is something I must not reveal).
It surprised director Patricia Darbasie, too, the first time she read the play. Since then she’s read the book by King’s close associate Rev. Ralph Abernathy, with its dimensional human portrait of a hero. “On the last day of his life he spent time with three women; he was a bit of a player,” says Darbasie of “one idea that the playwright ran with.”
It’s not as if you have to hunt for reasons in 2022 to revisit the terrible events of the ‘60s. After all, as Darbasie points out, even King’s passing observation in the play that the looting in the wake of a peaceful demonstration ‘just gives the police an excuse to shoot innocent folks’ “is as true in America today as it was in 1968.” Consult the news for proliferating evidence.
“What appeals to me,” says Darbasie, “is that the play calls on all of us, the baton passes on. Other men, the movement, will carry it on. King’s final monologue to the audience is about our responsibility…. If we’re actually going to change things significantly, it’s up to each individual. It’s not a one-man show. And things are not going to change on their own.”
“King really was a visionary…. He really did understand (the interconnection) of civil rights, human rights, and poverty. You can’t solve things with just one of those.”
As an artist of colour Darbasie, a first-generation immigrant from Trinidad (she arrived here at age seven with her family), has had more than a few occasions to consider that “a lot has changed, and a lot has not changed. I think we forget that.” She tells the story of a Black Canadian friend who’d gone down to Alabama for a family reunion and been advised by a relative that “we don’t go to that part of town after dark; it’d be inviting trouble.” The friend, taken aback, said something about Obama being the president, and the rejoinder was “well, Obama ain’t here in Alabama.”
“It’s so much more subtle here in Canada,” says Darbasie, whose commissioned play West Indian Diary (about the experiences of Caribbean immigrants here in the ‘60s and ‘70s) premiered in 2011. She notes “the issues” that attended Black and South Asian candidates who went door knocking during the most recent civic election campaign. As a new arrival in Canada as a little kid, she remembers “hostility, but with negotiation. The thing about Canada is that (incidents) surprise you. In Alabama it’s been that way since the Civil War. In Canada it’s ‘O, I did not see that one coming’.”
The Mountaintop, which was produced at Rosebud Theatre in 2019 (with Strachan and Cerra), was announced by Shadow in 2020, when the pandemic still seemed like a minor blip. It was a couple of months before the murder of George Floyd changed the landscape of awareness here and internationally. “It was a seismic shift (in awareness). People had to notice. We were all home by then, watching it unfold,” as Darbasie points out. And we were locked down with our screens when the story of mass graves of Indigenous children finally emerged. “The pandemic has shone some light on the uglier race relations in our history…. The ‘news’ became unavoidable.”
The Mountaintop is a challenge, both for its actors and director Darbasie, as she says. The Shadow production is the third in which Winnipeg-based Strachan has played King (in addition to the Rosebud production, he starred in a recorded version at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre). And his task is to capture “the cadence, the rhythm, of a real person” as revealed in some of the great performances, and speeches, of the 20th century.
The play “takes a figure who has been mythologized, larger than life, and makes him human size,” says Darbasie. “There’s vanity there. And ego…. And we forget that for anyone in the public eye, there is a cost. As Camae tells him ‘you’re maybe only 39 but you have the heart of a 60-year-old’.”
“I love that he is real, that he is human and therefore not perfect.” Paragons do tend to be a drag onstage. “And Camae is very human too.”
That the actors are returning to a play, and roles, they’ve done in other productions is something of a challenge, too. “I love peeling the onion. We’re able to go deeper in the work, and I think they’re enjoying it too,” says Darbasie of her cast. “They’re being so gracious.”
An actor herself, Darbasie says “I try really hard in my own directing process to ask questions so the actors find their own way to fill a moment…. I’ve been directed by directors who want the actors to do exactly what they would do (in the role). I’m not interested in that.”
Directing, she thinks, “is a matter of asking questions. What’s the question that needs to be asked? So bring me your best, and we’ll see how it fits with everybody else.” And then there’s the exhilaration of choosing, she laughs: “I want that, that, and not that, and a bit of this…. I get to choose. It’s kind of how I cook.”
Written by: Katori Hall
Directed by: Patricia Darbasie
Starring: Ray Strachan, Patricia Cerra
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Feb. 6
Tickets, schedule, COVID protocols: shadowtheatre.org