WEST CHESTER, PA — Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center is bringing an acclaimed play to the stage in West Chester this February. The Mountaintop was written by then 28-year old, Black female playwright, Katori Hall, and opened in a small pub in south London. A producer saw the show and supported it in a production in the West End where it went on to take the UK theatre award season by storm winning the Laurence Olivier Award for “Best New Play.” The Oliviers are the UK equivalent of the NY Tony Awards. Set in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the evening Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what became famously known as his “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech, The Mountaintop is a fictional imagining of an encounter with a mysterious messenger who appears at his door at the Lorraine Motel.
“When I was reviewing plays for the season my guidestar was always that the script needed to be both moving and entertaining,” said Uptown Artistic Director Carmen Khan. “The Mountaintop”‘ is both. The playwright, Katori Hall, wrote it when she was just 28 years old, so that alone is astonishing, and she is from Memphis, so she grew up steeped in the history of what happened there in 1968. The story is fictional, and fantastical, and its starting point is a moment in time that none of us will ever know the reality of. All those elements together made me want to bring this story to the stage in West Chester.”
On April 3, 1968, after delivering what became his final impassioned speech on behalf of Memphis sanitation workers, an exhausted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. retires to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. A wild storm has been raging outside and he orders room service. When the mysterious housekeeper Camae arrives she brings with her strange and unexpected news that forces King to confront his destiny and his legacy. “The Mountaintop” is a fictional reimagination of Martin Luther King’s missing minutes on April 3, a poetic and gripping inspiration from Tony Award-nominee, Pulitzer Prize and Olivier Award-winning playwright and television creator/producer hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, Katori Hall.
Hall originally premiered The Mountaintop in a pub in London. From there it went to The West End, where it garnered the coveted Olivier Award for “Best New Play.” Finally arriving on Broadway, it was Tony Award-nominated and became a widely produced play across the country. The Telegraph called it “…a beautiful and startling piece, beginning naturalistically before shifting gear into something magical, spiritual and touching.”
Noted director Ryan George will direct The Mountaintop. Chaz Rose plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is making his Uptown debut, but played the role in a production of The Mountaintop that George directed at The Hippodrome Theatre, in Florida. Rose is a University of the Arts grad and performed off-Broadway in Black Angels Over Tuskegee and She Like Girls (GLAAD Award winner). He produced and appeared in the film Writer’s Block, starring Bryan Cranston. In the play, Dr. King encounters Camae, who is played by Brianna Miller. She is making her Uptown debut. Miller is a graduate of Earlham College and recently has been part of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s touring company and resident ensemble.
“This play is important in countless ways,” said George. “It’s a wonderful exploration of MLK Jr. as a man. Not just the larger than life icon that gets discussed in the general way, but the red blooded, flawed, funny, anxiety ridden, hope filled man. The father, the husband, the friend that gets to just exist in a private space that we as the audience peer into during the length of the show.”
“Obviously the play dives deep into important discussions about race, human rights, and socioeconomic issues of America in that time period (which also very much still exists today) but what is also vitally important about this play is the joy that springs forth from it,” adds George. “This play is funny. You think that because it takes place the night before he is assassinated it’s going to be filled with constant dread and drama, but it’s not. The drama and powerfully emotional moments are there, but they are elevated because this play is filled with so much humor, joy, and hope which is what makes it even more important.”
The Memphis motel room of The Mountaintop will be designed by David P. Gordon. Gordon is a noted Philadelphia designer. The set will be built by Philadelphia Scenic Works. Kelly Myers returns to Uptown as the Costume Designer. She designed Uptown’s production of The Butterfingers Angel. She is the Costume Supervisor at Lantern Theatre Company. Jerry Forsyth returns to Uptown as the Lighting Designer for The Mountaintop. Michael Hahn is the Sound Designer. Jorge Cousinaeu is designing projections.
Uptown is welcoming JBD Musicworks to the production. They have created original music that embraces the feeling of 1968 using the sounds of that period. The music draws on the Memphis sound, Stax Records, Chicago, Motown, Jimi Hendrix, The Sound of Philly, and finally takes the audience to church with the sound of gospel singers from the First Calvary Church in Coatesville, PA. JBD Musicworks is John Lilley from The Hooters, Brett Edmonson, and Daniel Gallery.
“We’re also excited that for the first time here at Uptown, we are doing something very special with the sound for the show,” said Khan. “Michael Hahn is the Sound Designer and we are working with JBD MusicWorks, John Lilley, Brent Edmondson and Daniel Gallery. JBD MusicWorks is an award-winning local collective of composers and songwriters who produce work for theatre, film, orchestral performance and media. John was a band member in the wildly popular band, The Hooters, and Brent and Dan are classically trained artists. They’ve written original music for the play and it was recorded in collaboration with choir members from First Calvary Church in nearby Coatesville with Pastor Roland Holmes, Jr. as Lead Vocal, Choir Members and Background Singers Roberta Scott and Ella Marie Mobley and Background Singer, Carla Harvey. No spoilers, but we’re working with Projection Designer, Jorge Cousineau on one particular element of the production that audiences will never expect.”
The director shares that this will be a great experience for theatergoers. “Audiences can expect to get exactly what they deserve from theater – a piece that is moving, poignant, funny, and inspiring,” said George. “My hope is that people will walk out of the theater wanting to talk to people in the audience who they’ve never met about what they just saw. I hope that it creates a connection and a stronger sense of community. And I hope it drives people to want to do more for our society and for our world. Not that it has to be something big, but something good. Doing one good thing, no matter how small.”
This startling and gripping play, directed by Ryan George, runs February 1-February 19. Opening Night is Friday, February 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale now starting at $35 with discounts and savings available for school groups, families, seniors, students and military. Discounts are also available for groups of ten or more. All performances are on the Roy A. Smith Mainstage at Uptown, at 226 N. High Street. For more about shows, subscriptions and other events, visit uptownwestchester.org.
Uptown is partnering with The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Chester County Kehillah, and the Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia in a hosted Zoom conversation, Reflections On The Mountaintop, on February 6, at 6:30 PM. The online conversation is free and open to the public with advance reservation required. Guests will be Uptown Artistic Director, Carmen Khan, Director Ryan George, and actor Chaz Rose. For reservation information go to https://uptownwestchester.org/the-mountaintop/. Reservations open Tuesday, January 10. Space may be limited.
There will be a free event at Uptown on February 16, at 5:30 with Rev. Dr. Wayne E. Croft, Sr., Pastor of the St. Paul’s Baptist Church in West Chester, PA. Dr. Croft will present “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” a conversation on Dr. Martin King’s sermon. The presentation will be in Uptown’s Univest Cabaret space on the 2nd floor. Dr. Croft is a pastor, writer and scholar, having earned an Associate degree from Pinebrook Jr. College and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Trinity College earning a Bachelor of Arts. He received the Master of Divinity degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary), Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and graduated with distinction from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey earning a Doctor of Ministry degree. He also earned a Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy degree from Drew. He is the first person to earn both a Doctor of Ministry and Doctor of Philosophy from Drew University and received an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Villanova University in May 2018.
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