In a conversation at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he will be assassinated the next day, a tired and self-doubting Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon Jones) asks the maid Camae (Liz Morgan) about the burden on his shoulders: “Why me?”
She replies: “Why not you?”
This answer, of course, is also directed at the audience. Why should I be the one to care? To correct the injustices in the world?
Katori Hall’s award-winning imagining of the last night of the civil rights leader’s life is a fascinating, if flawed, 90 minutes, and I recommend it.
I say “imagining” because Hall employs the literary technique of “magical realism,” a device that takes the real and layers it with the fantastic. To explain further here would be to deprive you of the pleasure of discovery, but suffice it to say that the theatrical experience satisfies in the way that, for example, “Our Town” or “Angels in America” can: The imaginative authors play fast and loose with time and space.
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: Through Feb. 9
HOW MUCH: $60-$20; students, $16
MORE INFO: 445-7469, or www.capitalrep.org
Lack of trust
But I did say “flawed.” Hall takes two turns in the last half hour, one of which is bearable, the second of which spoils the drama. King’s phone conversation is slightly sophomoric, but it’s amusing compared to the stultifying ending. Up to then, Hall has regaled us with humor and serious observations, but the last few minutes suggest that she doesn’t trust the material, or us.
The production is wonderful. Every jot and tittle of David Esler’s set, Michael Giannitti’s lighting, Carolyn Walker’s costumes, David Thomas’ sound, and Brian Massman’s projections are apt to the time period and crisply executed.
Director Nick Mangano has kept a sharp eye on Jones and Morgan — he’s the critical third person in this two-person play. King and Camae keep their distance at first, but over time they sit in each other’s presence, share cigarettes, and finally touch — nicely spaced and paced.
Jones is saddled with some awkward phone business and thinking out loud at the beginning, but he is never not King: He captures King’s oratorical rhythm, and he also convincingly suggests what must have been on the man’s mind, namely what comes next, both personally and “professionally.”
King had to make it up as he went along, and doing so takes a toll, even on the most creative and dedicated of leaders. Jones depicts a man full of himself at times even when he must be running on empty.
Laughing and crying
Morgan is simply magnificent as a wise-cracking chamber maid with a past and an eternal future. Her Camae (a conflation of Carrie Mae, in the best Southern tradition), is a kind of self-invented person, too, a black woman who’s as original as they come if allowed to be, but ready to answer to a shorthand version of herself when threatening situations warrant it.
And she preaches and swears with the best of them! Morgan’s Camae makes you laugh and cry, and, cliché aside, laughter and tears are the reasons we go to the theater.
Forgive Hall’s lapses. You’ll find her risk-taking enormously entertaining and provocative.