As Martin Luther King famously told a strike-weary crowd of Memphis sanitation workers, he had seen the Promised Land. But true to what the civil rights champion said a moment later — "I might not get there with you" — he was gunned down outside his room at the Lorraine Motel the following night, April 4, 1968. We remember the voice, we remember the words, and we still feel the mythic mosaic echoes of MLK's premature death.
But as playwright Katori Hall wants to show us in The Mountaintop, that night of April 3, when the icon came down from his oratorical pinnacle at the Mason Temple and opened the door to Room 306 at the Lorraine — that night might have been an ideal moment to discover something that has eluded us for the more than 45 years since MLK was assassinated: Who was this man? James T. Alfred, who is portraying King in a touring Arizona Theatre Company production at Booth Playhouse through March 2, was intrigued by the prospect of finding out and sharing Hall's insights with her audience.
Truth is, Alfred has known about The Mountaintop since before it became a London sensation, winning the Olivier Award for best new play in 2010 and premiering on Broadway the following fall.
"Tori and I were in grad school together [at Harvard]," Alfred explains. "She was a year ahead of me, so I knew that she was a writer, and I saw her some years after I got out. We got coffee in New York, she had just come out of the Juilliard program, and Cherry Lane Theatre was doing one of her plays called Hoodoo Love. I was asking, what else does she have? She told me about it and said, 'You'd be great in that role!'"
But throughout the Mountaintop development process, Alfred had the happy misfortune of being booked in other projects. "My first experience with the play, the first time I actually read it or anything was in 2009, 2010, something like that, right before she actually went to London and got it produced at the Trafalgar Studios."
Ironically, when casting was done for the Arizona production, Hall's recommendation was hardly necessary. Alfred is a company member at Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, Minn., and Penumbra's esteemed founder and artistic director, Lou Bellamy, has directed Alfred each of the four times the actor has worked at Arizona. In fact, Alfred's first gig out of grad school was in August Wilson's Jitney, another drama that Bellamy directed for Arizona.
"And we've been dancing ever since!" says Alfred.
Though this is the first production in Charlotte, Bellamy's name might ring a bell. The 2007 Obie Award winner was also given a special award for directing that same year at the National Black Theatre Festival, and Penumbra is frequently a force at the Winston-Salem celebration. Here in Charlotte, Bellamy was feted at Queens University in 2011 in an event co-sponsored with Johnson C. Smith University, a couple of months after Penumbra's Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking rocked that year's Festival.
Bellamy is mentoring Charlotte's Quentin Talley for 18 months as part of a $75,000 fellowship awarded by the Theatre Communications Group and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to exceptionally talented early-career theater professionals. No wonder Bellamy and Alfred were in the audience last Wednesday night, when Talley's On Q Performing Arts company opened its production of Call Me Madam.
"Lou is the kind of artist that seems to be a dying breed," Alfred asserts, "in terms of really finding collaborators, people they want to make art with — because they share a common aesthetic, they share common convictions, they share artistic missions. I love working with him because we both have similar artistic aims."
The run at the Booth is part of a limited tour that began in Tucson and transplanted to Phoenix before a brief layoff allowed Alfred some time at home. Even though it was in the low 20's when he arrived in the Queen City, that was still 40 degrees warmer than Chicago when he left. Last stop on the tour? The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. So Booth Playhouse is by far the closest he'll be, bumming cigarettes as King, to the real Lorraine Hotel — now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
What captivates him about The Mountaintop is Hall's commitment to showing the ground-level MLK, what the man was like when the cameras weren't running during the "I Have a Dream" and "Mountaintop" speeches. We've all seen those clips.
"Those who are going to come in expecting to see the icon, the public figure, the sacred cow, they are going to be disappointed," Alfred says. "Because The Mountaintop is not that. But other people that will come with an open heart and an open mind, they'll have a wonderful time."