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Theater 2013-14: ‘The Mountaintop,’ Dr. King poised at mortal precipice, opens at Court

Submitted by on Sep 5, 2013 – 2:29 pm

David Alan Anderson, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall at Court Theatre 2013

11th in a series of season previews: What does a great man think about on the eve of his death? A new work by Katori Hall illuminates both the mundane and the sublime in “The Mountaintop” at Court.

By Nancy Malitz

“It’s been a long while since I read a play for the first time and without hesitation said, ‘We have to do this,’” says Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell about Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” which imagines Martin Luther King on what would be his last night on earth. King had given a speech that day in Memphis in support of 1,300 striking sanitation workers in which he famously touched on a premonition:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.”

Hall’s play catches up with King a few hours later, a weary man in his hotel room, thinking about his next speech and flirting with a young chamber maid.

'The Mountaintop' photo shoot, with David Alan Anderson and Lisa Beasley (Court Theatre)For Newell — himself the son of a Presbyterian minister who was a classmate of King’s at Harvard — Katori Hall’s take on King the man, as opposed to the symbol, is “fantastically audacious. She looks, as one needs to do in theater, to find the human being, the challenges that he had, the details of what his life was like.

“To have this opportunity from Katori’s incredible scholarship and study and inspiration, is wonderful for all of us. And the play takes an extraordinary theatrical turn into a final sequence about the impact of King’s life since the assassination that is inspiring and devastating and makes use of all the design tools our team has to offer.”

“The Mountaintop” is a Chicago premiere. It opens a diverse 2013-14 season that also features the Chicago premiere of “Water by the Spoonful” (part of an ex-Marine trilogy by Quiara Alegría Hudes), and a revival of “M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang. “M. Butterfly” was inspired by the true story of a prolonged affair between a French diplomat and a beautiful Chinese opera diva who was secretly both man and spy.

'An Iliad,' with Timothy Edward Kane at Court Theatre 2011 (Michael Brosilow)Located on the University of Chicago campus, Court looks for opportunities to develop relationships around its plays, as Newell puts it, “with these amazingly smart people whose lives focus on narrow academic passions that often intermingle with our own. We have been able to do projects that no other theater could because of that intellectual resource. We had for many years been trying to get the stage rights to ‘Invisible Man‘ and one of the reasons we were finally granted permission was that we were able to bring a renowned Ralph Ellison scholar to the table.

“Similarly, Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, who were happy with what we did with their play ‘An Iliad‘ (at right) in 2011, have approached us on trying to tell the story of how the document of the Bible came into being. We said, ‘We have a world-renowned divinity school right here,’ and we got some people together in a room with them.”  Newell says he expects the Bible project to become a part of next year’s 60th anniversary celebration.

The 2013-14 season in brief:

The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall (Sept. 5-Oct. 6): Directed by resident artist Ron OJ Parson, Hall’s work is one that emphasizes destiny and legacy from the standpoint of a flawed and exhausted man, struggling with his calling, and the spirited young hotel maid he strikes up a conversation with. As Hall put it for the Washington Post, “If you want a play with King on a pedestal, there is a play for you over there. If you want a sanitized version of black women, there is play over there. I can’t please everybody.” Her play premiered in London and won the Olivier Best New Play 2010 Award.

“An Iliad” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare (Nov. 13-Dec. 8): Court’s 2011 hit production — directed by Newell and starring Timothy Edward Kane in the one-man adaptation of Homer’s saga of the Trojan War – is being revived because, according to Newell, “it won a bunch of awards and could have run a couple extra weeks, if not more.” He expects it to be essentially the same show but warns that “we are theater folks after all, and we are two years older as artists, and we’re always looking for a better way to tell a story.”

Playwright August Wilson“Seven Guitars” by August Wilson (Jan. 9-Feb. 9, 2014): Ron OJ Parson has been working his way through Wilson’s ten plays that trace the course of African American history in the 20th century. “Seven Guitars,” set in the late ‘40s, takes up the tale of six friends at a wake for Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a blues guitarist who died a bare inch from the fame that had eluded him. Says Newell: “Ron has been an incredible part of artistic life at Court and this guy has a unique talent with Wilson’s plays. He’s never done ‘Seven Guitars’ himself. It’s rarely produced, so I’m particularly excited about the prospect. I’m guessing the difficulty of casting the lead, who has to be a musician and play the guitar, has been a stumbling block, but each of the plays has its own unique elements you need to find a way to resolve and bring forth. We are so blessed that after the eight years Ron has been here, he has found a core group of African American actors who now think of the Court as their own.” (Wilson, above, died in 2005.)

Quiara Alegría Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with 'Water by the Spoonful'“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes (March 6-April 6, 2014): “This play was the first piece I ever read of hers,” says Newell of Hudes, at right, who won a 2008 Tony Award for the book to the musical “In the Heights.” “Steve Albert, our executive director, came up with a chance for us to see (the play) in New York and we immediately realized this would be a fantastic thing for us.” Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, “Water by the Spoonful” is Part 2 of three about Elliot Ortiz, a Puerto Rican American veteran who served briefly in Iraq and is now fighting demons and trying to fit in at home. Henry Godinez, who has acted at Court and is a leader in Chicago’s burgeoning Latino theater scene, will direct.

'M. Butterfly' playwright David Henry Hwang“M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang (May 8-June 8, 2014): Intertwining the story of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” with a story ripped from the mid-century tabloids about a French civil servant who falls under the spell of a beautiful Chinese opera star, the play’s initial Broadway run in 1988 starred John Lithgow as Gallimard and BD Wong as Song Liling. “But the closest it has come to Chicago recently was at the Guthrie in Minneapolis a few years ago,” says Newell, who will direct Hwang’s absorbing tale. “Like ‘Seven Guitars,’ this one has some real casting and design and movement and performance challenges, and I’m not even counting the fact that the lead actor is on stage for the entire time and is the engine for the entire production! The demands are pretty extraordinary, considering that one must also have an understanding of Peking Opera and Japanese theater. But tackling difficult plays is what we do best.”

Getting there:

Founded in 1955 “to create innovative productions of classic plays that are thought-provoking, character-driven and theatrically enduring,” Court Theatre is located at 5535 S. Ellis Ave. in Hyde Park on the University of Chicago campus.

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