By Darlene Donloe
The life and times of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have been well-documented over the years, including his time as a Baptist minister, his activism, the marches, his dedication to the cause, and of course, his assassination on April 4, 1968.
In a reimagining of what King’s last night on Earth could have been, two-time Tony Award nominee Katori Hill wrote the drama, ‘The Mountaintop,’ set to open at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theatre June 15.
When the show opens, it’s April 3, 1968, and King is returning to the Lorraine Motel after delivering his history-altering “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. When he orders room service, a young maid arrives with a revelation that forces King to confront unwelcome truths. As a lightning storm rages outside, the legacy of the revered civil rights leader is laid bare to reveal his profound humanity.
The show features Jon Michael Hill (“Superior Donuts,” “Elementary”), as King, and Amanda Warren (“Dickinson,” “Gossip Girl”) as the maid at the Lorraine Motel.
The Mountaintop reunites director Patricia McGregor and playwright Hall, who first worked together in 2012 for the world premiere of Hall’s “Hurt Village” at the Signature Theatre Company in New York (also McGregor’s Off-Broadway debut). They have since collaborated on several projects, including a workshop of Hall’s 2015 play “Pussy Valley” that went on to be adapted as her hit series on Starz.
McGregor, whose directing has focused on new American plays and the occasional classic, is the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop and has previously directed “Skeleton Crew” and “Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole” at Geffen Playhouse.
Some of her credits include “Sisters in Law” (Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (The Old Globe); “Good Grief” (Center Theatre Group); “Hamlet” (The Public Theater); “Indomitable: James Brown” (Apollo Theater); “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “Spunk” (Cal Shakes), and more.
McGregor, who studied theater at Southern Methodist University and studied directing at the Yale School of Drama, became enamored with theater as a middle school student in Florida after witnessing a production of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
She believed, she, too, “could tap into” the same energy that was on stage.
One of her first directing gigs was the Off-Off Broadway production of “The Mountaintop.”
McGregor was born in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her family moved frequently, temporarily calling Hawaii, California, Illinois and Florida home.
McGregor, who now lives in New York, is a married mother of two youngsters named Jupiter and Orion.
To continue her duties as the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, McGregor has been flying from Los Angeles back to New York on the weekends.
She said mounting another production of Hall’s “important work” was well worth the back and forth.
I recently caught up with McGregor to talk about her career and how she got to “The Mountaintop.”
DD: You have directed this show before. Why did you want to revisit “The Mountaintop?”
PM: I said yes to this piece because Katori took a chance on me back when I was starting out. She could have chosen someone with a name at the time to direct her show, but she gave me a chance. It was a game-changing moment.
DD: Tell me about the play in your own words.
PM: It’s an imagining of the last night of MLK’s life. It’s very funny and very political. It’s humor, politics, spirit and heart in equal portions. It’s decoding icons. We think of them as heroes and icons, but we have to show their humanity, they were afraid at one time.
They have wants and needs and a sense of humor. We have to awaken the hero in ourselves. It’s understanding that King was a man. How do we take our call to pick up the baton and run the race?
The call it is making is arguably more vital at this moment. I feel we have made steps forward and had a lot of pushback in terms of representation and justice. Even on the days you’re weary, pick up the baton and run your race. It’s about you making space for the next generation. It’s a call for hope – hope that there is a better world.
DD: Talk about the first time you saw the show and how it affected you. What was your first impression?
PM: I saw it on Broadway with Angela Bassett and Sam Jackson. I was directing Katori’s “Hurt Village” at The Signature Theater. It felt like an amazing moment — seeing the work of this author who had so much to say.
It was such a signature Katori Hall style. We are multitudes. The representation in ‘Mountaintop’ was glorious humanizing that we are multitudes. It’s such a great night of theater. It made you feel alive.
DD: Why did you want to be the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop? What was on your agenda when you took the position?
PM: As a person who loves the theater, I wanted to be of service to the field that has given me so much. I was able to champion certain voices and felt that the pathway wasn’t open to them. I want a more just world – where there aren’t obstacles to us achieving the promise. There are so many barriers for individuals to live out. How do we undo those barriers? Racism, sexism and those things that don’t allow for a human being to live with freedom.
DD: Why is “The Mountaintop” important?
PM: We’ve lost faith in the possibility that there is a Promised Land. There was and is a lot of exhaustion and rightfully so. Our spirits need a revival. The revival needs to be well-earned. You have to go through the hard journey and face hard facts to then figure out how to move to the other side.
We need a calling. Despite the exhaustion and the fear, pick up the call and run the race. We need this more than ever. We need that anthem to be planted in our hearts. We have to honor those that came before us.
DD: What did you learn about MLK that you didn’t know prior to taking on this project?
PM: The fact that he was scared sometimes and depressed sometimes. He went through moments of doubt and fear. He faced moments of crisis of faith and his own ability to move something forward. Also, I learned about the moments and the strengths of his conviction. He was placed here by God. There are times I’m absolutely called and days where I say, “No, I don’t want to move the world today.”
DD: Jon Michael Hill and Amanda Warren. What do they bring to the table?
PM: Jon has the intellect, heart and dexterity to play him. He is a talented actor who can portray that part of King.
Amanda is the more exquisite shapeshifter. She is flirtatious, mothering and can be a drinking buddy. They both have the greatest hearts.
“The Mountaintop,” directed by McGregor, and written by Hall, stars Jon Michael Hill as Martin Luther King Jr., and Amanda Warren as Camae. It runs June 15 through July 9 at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available to the general public one hour before showtime at the box office for $35 general admission and $15 for students.
“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s most engaging newsmakers or celebrities.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.