CHESTER — No one can really know what happened in Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal moments the night before he was assassinated, but an acclaimed play applies a fictional encounter to it in order to examine the wider implications of his life and death.
Set entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968. Katori Hall's Olivier Award-winning play, "The Mountaintop" — at Chester Theatre Company — is a fictionalized depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before he was assassinated.
"Katori has done a beautiful job," said the production's director, Colette Robert. "She was an actress before being a playwright and you can tell. Her language is so juicy and gives so much to the actors to play with."
The plot involves King's encounter with a motel maid, Camae, which springs into a night of dialogue between the two characters that allows King to look inside himself during the course of the meeting.
"We get to know each of them through the eyes of the other," Robert said. "And Camae, because of her job and how she's dressed, there are a lot of assumptions that go with how you see her on the surface. What's really fun about this play is how those assumptions fall away and the surprises her character has."
Dr. King is played by Jordan Mahome and Camae is played by Shelly Fort.
Robert said that she is drawn to plays that have social and political relevance to current America, and as she has worked on "The Mountaintop," she has been struck by how much the themes of yesteryear are still so powerful today.
"It feels more relevant now than it did when it was first produced [in London in 2010]," she said. "We had our final runthrough before tech and it struck me as I was watching it how brave the two characters in the play are. They're confronting hate and mortality head on, and in a really brave way. Both of them are dealing with impossible tasks and I just find it really inspiring and hopeful, the two characters and the play itself. It's a pretty dark time in America now and it's nice to work on a play so challenging and upsetting, but also at the end of the day encouraging and hopeful."
The play offers Dr. King the chance to have a direct debate with the exact kind of person his fight is being waged for, and in doing so, brings King down to earth as a human being for the modern audience.
"I think it's easy to put him on an impossibly high pedestal and I think what you get from this play is that he was just a man with flaws and failures," Robert said. "I think it's important to see he is just a man. I'm just a woman. We're all just one individual that has the power to make great change if we try hard enough, and confront our fears and insecurities."
Robert thinks it's a message that works specifically about Dr. King, but also about anyone — one flawed person can make great political and social change. Many historical figures are just that — flawed people who can be elevated to a degree that they are no longer relatable. Robert believes that making these figures recognizable might be part of anyone now seeing the potential for change within themselves.
"I think it's really inspiring for individuals seeing this play to know the power of the individual and not the power of some perfect saintly unblemished figure."
And, as the play makes obvious, that's still much-needed for change.
"We're not at the top of the mountain yet, and we're probably really far away from being able to figure out race in America," Robert said, "but we have to keep trying, because while we're not so close, every step we take gets closer and we have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other until we get there."
Robert points to some specific moments in the play that directly reach out to 2016 and link the past with the present so dramatically, pointing to the work that is still required.
"At one point King says 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe, I can't breathe,' and I have to think of Eric Garner whenever I hear that," she said. And he says, 'Poor people matter.' It's really strange to work on this play this summer with everything going on."
And Robert points out the role that guns still play, after all these decades, in the ending of black lives. She says that is what the cast and crew have been thinking about the most as they prepare for the first performance.
"In the past few years, black men and women who have been murdered by police or by 'citizens' that were defending what they thought was theirs, and it's something that all of us have thought a lot about throughout this process. And I know that we're doing it for the men whose names and final moments have been captured on TV and in the media, and for those whose names and final moments we don't know."
What: "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall. Directed by Colette Robert
Who: Chester Theatre Company
Where: Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester
When: Now through Aug. 28. Evenings — Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 2
Tickets: $37.50; Chester resident and student rush — $10
How: 1-800-595-4849; chestertheatre.org