For most Americans, Martin Luther King Jr. is a saintly abstraction.
But truth of the civil rights icon’s later life is considerably more prickly than the pristine picture of him that exists in the popular imagination. The complex politics and personal struggles of King’s late-life advocacy come into sharper focus in “The Mountaintop,” a one-act play by Katori Hall that has its local premiere tonight in the Subversive Theatre Collective’s Manny Fried Playhouse.
The show, set the night before King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, unfolds in a single act during which he lays out his lesser-known personal and political struggles in a conversation with a hotel maid. The story is largely apocryphal, but the thorny issues that arise during the conversation are anything but.
“He comes off as a very mainstream figure who was loved by all and was a champion of all, but especially in the final year of his life, the exact opposite was the case,” said Subversive Theatre founder Kurt Schneiderman. “When he was declared public enemy No. 1 by J. Edgar Hoover, where the federal government pulled out their federal protection of King, where Time magazine called him a lunatic who had to be stopped. These are the sides of the story we don’t hear.”
In the final year of his life, King shifted his attention from the traditional concerns of his movement – voting rights, discrimination, the stubborn legacy of Jim Crow – to broader issues such as economic justice and the antiwar movement. This turn toward a broader political agenda against the status quo gained him a number of powerful enemies, who attempted – often successfully – to discredit him personally and within the very movement he championed.
Those efforts, and many of King’s personal warts, emerge in Hall’s play. The 2009 show debuted in London and came to Broadway in 2011 in a production starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. It is the fourth installment in Subversive’s “Black Power Performance Series,” an attempt to highlight racial and social justice issues.
“It’s not just about the underpublicized aspects of his political stances, but also about the underpublicized side of his personal life. You see him smoking, you see him swearing, you see him really getting angry and very different from the sort of cool, collected apostle of nonviolence that he’s typically depicted as,” Schneiderman said. “And you also see him taking interest in a woman other than his wife, which is another aspect to his life that a lot of people don’t feel like acknowledging.”
Jonathan K. Lee, who bears a slight resemblance to King, will play the civil rights leader opposite Candace M. Whitfield as a maid at the Lorraine Motel, where he was murdered. Veteran Buffalo playwright Gary Earl Ross directs the show.
For Schneiderman, whose company is dedicated to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, King’s embrace of the economic justice movement in his later life seemed the perfect topic for Subversive to explore.
“Anyone who’s really serious about the question of civil rights inevitably gets into the question of social justice and economic justice,” Schneiderman said. “That’s precisely what King did and precisely the part of King’s story they want us to forget and precisely the part that I want to make sure is not forgotten.”
What: “The Mountaintop”
When: Tonight through March 1
Where: Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave.
Tickets: $20 to $25
Info: 408-0499 or www.subversivetheatre.org