This humanity is grounded by Ndlovu and Edun’s extraordinary central performances. Faced with the ever-daunting task of taking on one so etched into our collective consciousness, Edun’s performance is understated, yet lives and breathes with a careful balance between powerful charisma and precise control. In his King, you can see a man who has the presence and magnetism to be the face that represents the pride and dreams of so many, but it is also underscored by dint of being a flawed husband and father, who lives in loneliness and fear. He is compelling to watch, and Edun successfully bears the weight that the writing places on his character to make it function.
Ndlovu is equally compelling, demonstrating a matching, yet contrasting, charisma that is by turns wild and sultry. With pin-sharp direction from Weise, she consistently hits the comedic beats that the play relies on to provide relief from the heavy subject matter. That’s not to say she is just here for the laughs; indeed, Ndlovu’s performance thrives on a burning passion that is also responsible for some of the play’s most affecting moments. The Mountaintop’s first half succeeds on the rapport between the two of them, a whip-smart tennis match of flirtation, expression and preaching that is engaging to witness, providing a sense of an entire social movement in a single conversation between two people.
Standing on the edge of history: Martin Luther King Jr, pictured above with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the day before his assassination. The events of The Mountaintop are set on the very same evening of this now-historic photo.
For all the praise, however, the lengthy runtime, combined with an extremely heavy focus on dialogue, and such an emotionally and intellectually heavy subject matter, makes for a viewing experience that is, at times, exhausting. There’s clear logic behind the decision to excise an interval, as there’s really no appropriate place to put one without losing the focus and gradual momentum of the piece.
However, after we have seen the new change in gear play out, Hall pivots us back to more familiar territory, bringing with it notable slump in momentum. There’s still a while to go at this point, and whilst the dialogue remains powerfully written and delivered with great talent, it begins to fall flat, bouncing off of the audience instead of being absorbed by them. There’s surely a tighter run in there; one that Hall, or perhaps Weise, could have streamlined a little to make a more defined structure and taut trajectory from start to finish.
By the time we do reach the conclusion, there is a lift again. A highlight of the entire production is Camae’s monologue, infused with so much fire and passion that it is incredibly stirring. There is so much pain, grief, and determination on display from Ndlovu that it will likely light a fire in the belly and bring a tear to the eye. It’s the production’s pièce de résistance, and of itself would make for a punchy and thrilling conclusion to the play.
But no, Mountaintop is not done yet. There is a little more to come, which, whilst not entirely ineffective, feels a little lesser in comparison, and is, ultimately, unnecessary. Hall tries to reinforce her final message by getting King to talk to the audience directly, but this registers a trifle too blunt. It’s as if she doesn’t trust her own writing to make its impact, whereas really there is nothing in the play’s final address that we haven’t already learnt and felt from what we have already scene. It’s a slightly deflated final note to end on, when Camae’s bravura monologue felt a natural climax.
Despite these structural and pacing flaws, you still leave the auditorium with a sense of enlightenment and emotional affectation that demonstrates how effectively Hall’s words – even if there are a few too many of them – have been executed by Edun and Ndlovu. Weise oversees the many challenges of the piece with a great sense of control, and it makes for a viewing experience that is, for the most part, compelling. It is evident that he is directing from the heart, and it is this emotional perspective and framework that gives The Mountaintop the power that it harbours.
It’s a story that needs to be told – one that needs to be understood, particularly emotionally – and by foregrounding this, Weise creates a play that has a unique sense of presence and poignancy that would make it a tragedy to miss.