The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Thursday 30th September, 2021
Memphis, Tennessee; the night of 3 April, 1968. Outside, the spring air trembles to the rumbling of distant thunder, the sky fizzes with piercing flashes of lightning.
Inside, specifically in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King (Adetomiwa Edun) is agonising over his newest and latest speech.
“America, you are too arrogant; … America, you are going to Hell!”
A brief call to room service, a simple request for coffee. But that coffee brings with it an unexpected and intriguing development: the feisty maid who calls herself Camae (Ntombizodwa Ndlovu).
Camae is a fabulous theatrical creation. She is all manner of characters, moods, mysteries – both to Martin Luther King himself and the audience who are, of course, initially unfamiliar with her in comparison to the icon with whom she shares a stage.
Camae enters as a maid delivering coffee, but as the on-stage interaction develops she becomes so much more. Camae is a tease (will they or won’t they?); Camae is an advisor; she is a therapist; a provocateur; an analyst of dreams – his dreams, remember: this is Martin Luther King, he had a dream.
Ntombizodwa Ndlovu’s performance is outstanding and easily steals the show, which is such an impressive achievement given that she is starting from nothing, whereas the audience at least has some pre-formed notions of what Martin Luther King might and ought to be like.
Camae has the sassy, Afro-American southern accent tuned to perfection and uses it brilliantly to dish out all the banter: she’s full of sharply-delivered, biting put-downs, as well as witty responses that seem swifter than the lightning flashes outside.
King seems to struggle with her: firstly against her charms and appeal; then latterly against her rationale, her advice, her honest opinions and down-to-earth truthfulness.
Adetomiwa Edun as Martin Luther King also delivers an outstanding acting performance, more than just a flawless emulation of that distinctive voice; the mannerisms all seem to be right; this is a man who speaks with extreme eloquence, a purveyor of notions that are profound and noble. His body language is serene, tranquil, graceful – even for a man relaxing in his hotel room.
The first half of The Mountaintop is an amusing and intriguing comedy double-act – they talk of God, of Malcolm X, smelly feet, their mutual desperation for more cigarettes. There’s an awful lot to be discussed and neither of these characters seem afraid to speak their minds.
The simmering chemistry of the opening scenes does slowly begin to fizzle, leading to obvious thoughts about where this is all heading. But then comes an incredible twist – one which is brilliantly engineered and genuinely unexpected, even though, in hindsight, it should perhaps have been expected given that everybody knows what the eventual outcome was for Martin Luther King.
The Mountaintop is a delightfully evocative night at the theatre, rendered satisfyingly with a set and lighting / sound effects that provide the perfect surroundings for all that transpires story-wise. The only slight disappointment is the two-hour running time, there are definitely segments that could’ve been removed to leave a more pleasingly compacted outcome, one that would have carried an even more concentrated punch.
But still, the selling point is the incredible double-act that is Ntombizodwa Ndlovu and Adetomiwa Edun. In what is effectively a single scene that doesn’t break, Ndlovu and Edun carry this show all the way through from start to finish: it makes for a compelling night of entertainment based on what is a brilliantly written fictional embellishment to the pages of history.
Photography: Marc Brenner