Review: The Mountaintop at Celebration Arts

Showtimes: Thursday 8pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm, Sunday 2pm; Through 6/30; $10-$20; Celebration Arts, 2727 B Street; (916) 455-2787;
Rated 4.0

Celebration Arts’ latest play, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, takes place entirely in Martin Luther King Jr.’s room at the Lorraine Motel the night before his assassination in 1968. Hall imagines a very human King—a procrastinator with stinky feet who leaves the stage in the first moments of the play to use the bathroom—receiving a visitor who makes him confront larger-than-life questions about legacy, martyrdom and death.

Both actors give top-notch performances of characters who grow increasingly complex as the play slides from realism toward the fantastic. James Ellison has the mammoth task of representing a historic icon, weaving boyish charm and ego together to channel King’s mannerisms and vigor for justice, and Sené Goss truly sparkles as the enigmatic Camae.

I did not expect to laugh so much at a play about a civil rights leader confronting mortality, but Goss and Ellison’s infectious rapport delivers on Hall’s sharp script. If anything, I would have liked to see the two have more freedom in the space. The hotel room set helped convey the play’s themes of claustrophobia in a moment just out of time, but it also limited stage movement.

Wheatley presents us with an important and uncannily familiar play. When King reflects on marches or “when that boy was killed,” it’s hard not to think of the protests and violence of our political present. Looking both backward and forward, they find that an icon is most powerful in the act of “passing the baton,” infusing people with momentum for a long, long fight.