Over the past couple of years, A.K. Murtadha has worked on three different plays, by two different playwrights, in two different theaters in Sarasota. In all three plays he has portrayed the same character — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But his latest turn as Dr. King is a bit different than his previous two.
“We think of Martin Luther King as a saint, or a hero,” Murtadha said. “This play helps us understand him as a man.”
The play he’s talking about, “The Mountaintop,” is next up from Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
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Katori Hall’s acclaimed play takes place entirely in room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. King has delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which obliquely refers to his own death. He orders coffee and a maid brings it to his room. The two strike up a conversation.
We think of Martin Luther King as a saint or a hero. This play helps us understand him as a man.
“We learn about his journey, but in the process we learn about her journey as well,” Murtadha said.
Murthadha’s previous local turns as King, in “All the Way” and “The Great Society” at Asolo Repertory Theatre, focused more on the iconic public image of King. “The Mountaintop” shows us what he may have been like behind closed doors.
“We see a man who’s trying to overcome his pride,” Murtadha said. “He’s coming to terms with the need to pass the baton. He already knows that his days are numbered.”
The other character in the play is the fictional maid, a working-class woman with no special significance in history. But within the play, she’s as essential a character as King.
“As a director, I have been having a hard time deciding who the main character is supposed to be,” Chuck Smith said. “They’re on equal footing. Katori Jones is a woman, and I think she writes this from a female point of view. There’s a definite feminine perspective.”
It’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meets ‘Its a Wonderful Life.’
Smith is a resident director at WBTT. Among his previous productions for the company are last year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Knock Me a Kiss” in 2015.
There’s apparently more to the play than just 90 minutes of conversation between one of America’s most-revered heroes and a hotel employee. In talking about the play, Murtadha repeatedly says, “I don’t want to give away the surprise.” The publicity material from WBTT describes the maid as “a mysterious woman with a much-greater mission.”
“The best way I can describe it to you in layman’s terms,” Smith said, “or even in terms of a TV watcher or a movie watcher, is that it’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meets ‘Its a Wonderful Life.’ ”