The theater is the place for what ifs. That's what director Robert O'Hara believes makes The Mountaintop by Katori Hall so worth doing. The play imagines what the last night of life on earth was like for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - not as an iconic figure, but as a real man.
Of course, O'Hara says, when Hall started pitching her play, no one in the United States was interested. So she went to England, where it was accepted and eventually made its way to the West End. Even won the 2010 Olivier Award. And suddenly everyone wanted it, and it made it to Broadway.
Now it's coming to Houston's Alley Theatre (in a co-production with Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington D.C. where it will go next) starring Bowman Wright as King and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae, the hotel maid. The setting is the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968.
"It begins with one man in the room and his visitor is a beautiful maid from the hotel who brings him a cup of coffee," says O'Hara, who is also a playwright and an adjunct professor at New York University.
Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd approached O'Hara about taking on the directing duties and O'Hara, who has a seriously impressive resume (he received the 2010 NAACP Best Director Award for his direction of Eclipsed by Danai Guiria, the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play for ANTEBELLUM and an OBIE Award for his Direction of the World Premiere of the critically acclaimed In The Continuum at Primary Stages) jumped at the chance.
O'Hara says he'd worked with Bowman Wright before and describes him as a "powerful" actor. "Bowman has a young frame but he has an older soul."
He'd seen Joaquina Kalukango in Hall's Hurt Village last year (it won the 2011 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize). "She was extraordinary and I knew I would love to work with her."
This was a troubled time for King, O'Hara says. "He was trying to put a movement that was falling to pieces around him back together. He'd been down to Menphis one time already and it was a disaster."
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Hall's play is not a documentary, but an imagining of what that last night was, O'Hara says. "Theater is about questions and about what ifs. This is one of the greatest what ifs," Hall says.
"I just hope that people come to see the play. I think that anyone with an interest in American history and civil rights history will be interested.," O'Hara says. "it's exciting and only 90 minutes. It's funny, moving and incredibly magical and theatrical."
At the same time, he readily acknowledges that some people will not like the play, thinking it disrespectful to a great man. "Everything is distressing to somebody. My job is to watch the play. Every play has the right to explore whatever they chose. This is an honest, a theatrical examination of the legacy of King and the legacy of civil rights. And ultimately an incredibly beautiful examination of him," he says.
The Mountaintop runs January 11 through February 3 on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit the theater's website www.alleytheatre.org. $26 to $78.