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Bloomington's Professional Theater Company

Bloomington's Professional Theater Company

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HT: Play about Martin Luther King Jr. coming to Bloomington

The Herlad-Times | Connie Shakalis

February 11, 2022

Cardinal Stage will return to the John Waldron Arts Center next month to offer a two-person play about Martin Luther King Jr. This show is part of Cardinal’s “Pay What You Will” offer, where you, the audience, choose your ticket price. A pretty wonderful deal.

Ansley Valentine HeadshotA determined and driven man, lightning — literal and figurative — a motel room and an unusual housekeeper help form the plot of “The Mountaintop,” coming to Cardinal Stage March 3-20 in the John Waldron Arts Center auditorium. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“The Hot Wing King”, 2021) Katori Hall has written “The Mountaintop” as a two-person play about the final night Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. It’s full surprise and symbolism and its director, Ansley Valentine, is being cautiously secretive.

From the beginning, the civil rights movement was invested in making King out to be the model of perfection. He was a minister, a married man, free from scandals and could give a powerful speech. The leader of the movement needed to be above reproach; his image was vital to its success.

“The Mountaintop” looks at justice and racism and shows, too, that great people are real people with flaws.

“It does not bother me that King is portrayed with flaws,” Ansley told me. “In fact, I think it is preferable to presenting him as perfect. He did incredible things, but he was also a man. When we make him a deity or demi-god, it seems that only he could accomplish these things. I think the message to the audience should be that they can do incredible things, too.”

Michael Aaron Pogue HeadshotKing (played by Michael Aaron Pogue) is in the Memphis, Tennessee, motel room where just outside on the balcony, he will soon be shot and killed by escaped criminal James Earl Ray. King has delivered his now famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  Room service brings his meal, and its bearer, Camae (AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin), is young, lovely, and knows something. They talk at length. Slowly we recognize Camae’s intentions in this insight into King’s humanness. Hall wants us to know heroes aren’t godlike; they are people, and people are capable of doing little things that matter in big ways.

I worked with Ansley when we performed in “Tuning In” at Bloomington Playwright Project four years ago, and can testify that he is talented, kind, smart and beloved. I asked him how his work relates to King’s.

“It would be a tall order to say that my work aligns with King’s. I certainly care for the welfare of others, but I can’t say I have inspired a whole movement,” he said. “On the other hand, I do think I have been inspired by King to make individual efforts for people that might help move us closer to justice. Anyone can make a small effort to change the community around them for the better.”

Hall has written the play so effectively that Ansley doesn’t feel the director’s impulse to “gin it up.” His challenge is to bring life to the lines and allow them and the action to soak into the audience. The cast plans to let the audience see what it might have been like to be in that hotel room in 1968.

“Mountaintop” appeals to Ansley because he believes the themes of the 1960s and of the Obama presidency years are more important now than they were when Hall wrote the play.

“It boggles my mind when politicians quote King out of context to support legislation designed to suppress the teaching of racial inequality. King may have had a message of hope, but he never abandoned the reality of the world and the treatment of poor people and Black people in America,” he said.

Click here to learn more about the show and find tickets.