TAMPA — It starts off with rain on the roof.
The Heather is a small theater in West Tampa, in an office park behind a Popeye's restaurant. It's intimate, the which lends itself to all kinds of advantages, and rain on the roof is one of them.
A weary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. enters a dinged-up room in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the day's events involving a sanitation strike still on his mind, a sermon he has to give looming larger. It's April 3, 1968.
The Heather is tied to an ongoing workshop heavy on the work of acting coach Eric Morris, rooted in the method acting of Konstantin Stanislavski and its offshoots. The unlikely venue — it's hard to find, and harder to believe this is an actual theater once you do find it — is good for the realism its actors seek to embody. Actors don't need to project to the back of an auditorium; they can just talk. I took in a final dress rehearsal of this production, directed by the Heather's artistic director, Ward Smith, and found it engaging, fresh and different.
As a storm lashes out in the night (true enough, it had rained that day), King shuffles into Room 306 and prepares for an unremarkable night. His roommate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, is on a cigarette run. Darren Constantine carries the weight of the movement around his body. On his feet on all day, wrestling between the strike and anger erupting in the streets, he is ready to turn in, or would be if he could stop working.
His shoes smell. He carries them to a bathroom just offstage, where the sound lets you know he is urinating.
This is, in other words, a human leader, however deified he has become or was at the time. Playwright Katori Hall was in her 20s when The Mountaintop made a splash in London. It had a Broadway run in 2011, with Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as a precocious motel maid.
Now the maid.
King did have extramarital affairs, according to Abernathy's 1989 biography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, at least one of which was picked up by an FBI bug. A maid loaded with personality and spunk brings him coffee high up in the play, and the rest of the play centers on their rapport. Naima Tabernuro presents a complex Camae, communicating much with her eyes and the way she moves toward and away from King, and toward him again.
Camae knows a lot about King, for reasons that are better left unsaid so as to avoid spoilers. She straightens out the room, fluffs the pillows and extends every line he utters into some deeper thread. Over 80 minutes or so, she answers his grooming questions (keep the mustache) and gives him tips on public speaking (a devotee of Malcolm X, she's more fiery than he is), shares a dainty flask of her whiskey and teaches him how to smoke a cigarette with style.
They delve into the racial resentments outside and where he fits in, the difficulty of the task and his de facto position as a chosen one. There's an aptly timed call from his wife.
Much gets said about King's self-imposed sense of responsibility and his ability to bring about any of these goals single-handedly.
"You just a man, baby," she tells him. "You not God."
It's one of many moments when Camae keeps the reverend in check, lowers the pedestal on which he stands without letting him off, and foreshadows the future. A monologue here or there by each character can get a bit wearisome, but that's hardly a felony.
Seeing all of this, it's an achievement to pull off something by definition kind of contrived in a way that owns up to the contrivance, yet stays believable. There is no attempt to convince the audience they're not watching a play. Also nothing to remind them of that fact.
So you just watch, listen to the rain, and believe.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.