In Conversation With : The Mountaintop Director Curtis M. Jackson

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The Mountaintop ran February 23rd – March 10th at Riverside Theatre. Read our interview below with director Curtis M. Jackson and Riverside Theatre’s Marketing Intern Tony Carter Walsh.

Thanks for taking the time to talk about The Mountaintop. During rehearsal, one of the things I noticed was the collaborative nature of the effort. It was amazing to see that everyone in that room was so happy and enthusiastic. Maybe joyful is a stretch, but it was clear that everyone was fully engaged and smiling.

CJ: We are all very happy and lucky to be there in that space together. They’re all masters in their own fields and able to work in tandem with each other. To support each other. I guess my job as the director is to just try my hardest to set the designers up very, very early and say, “This is the concept that I’m thinking of, this is how I want it to go.” That way, when they all come together, all we do is just keep checking in with each other, you know? About the door, about this color chair, about this sound… I don’t know, we might need to include more, you know, women artists in the projected images, as opposed to just making it so much about Martin Luther King, which is something that I’m still working on because there’s another person in this play.

It was beautiful to see that people could have that sort of uplifted mood but also be working hard and in cooperation.

CJ: One thing about me as a director is I like bringing people in and giving them, well, maybe not the amount of time I’d like, but giving them the opportunity to go for something that they’ve always wanted to do and never have. My limit is like high wire to like a trap door, you know what I mean? If we can find a way to make it work in this play, I think we need to do it. Because in a lot of other plays, you are confined to the world of realism… Adam [Knight, Riverside’s Producing Artistic Director] and the Riverside production team have given us the space, time, and resources to do our best. To go for it.

You mentioned trying to find more space for women in the projected images in the play. The play subverts some of our ideas about identity when it comes to masculine and feminine, rich and poor, sacred and profane, and women exist at a nexus of opposing ideas. I’m curious, how important were those tensions for you as you were thinking about the play’s structure?

CJ: I’m ashamed to say that I had to go through the Martin stuff first. Because Martin stuff, as I call it, is far easier to attach myself to. We’ve all been learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. since we were born. Martin, he’s on the poster for the play. “The Mountaintop” is one of his speeches, and in it he speculates about dying. This is a shameful thing on my part: it’s only recently that I’ve even been able to acknowledge the other person in the play. In trying to get the Martin stuff down first, you think about the fact that he’s the first one to enter, the one that has these big speeches. You focus on the soaring cadence of his speech, but you know he’s still a human. I was fascinated with, What does Martin Luther King Jr. do when he’s alone in a hotel room? He doesn’t have shoes on, pees with the bathroom door open, and settles into bed. He makes these difficult phone calls to his loved ones. But then you think, what does Camae do? And who was she? Did she listen to Mahalia Jackson? The challenge is that there are not a lot of historical documents to help us understand the inner life of a woman like Camae.

Indeed. Katori Hall might be trying to fill that gap in our understanding. She has said that her own mother was forbidden to attend King’s last speech by her grandmother, and in writing the play she was trying to right that wrong. By symbolically putting her mother in the room, she’s also confronting the legacy of misogyny. When we witness how King treats women, it humanizes him, but not in a flattering way, and so we are perhaps seeing his frailty, his fallibility. Did you ever have misgivings about approaching an American icon this way?

CJ: It was part of the draw for me. I was very excited about it. I wanted to dive deep into his humanity. It’s a conversation I’ve been having with Monté [J Howell] since the first time we met, he was trying to figure out if there’s any footage of him, you know, outside of the public persona. I had to keep saying, any footage with his wife and kids, you know, is a camera crew. Martin knows he’s on camera. There is a public persona that he has to maintain, but where we’re going is what he does alone in a motel room. And it’s happening. You can hear it in his voice. He’s dropping a lot of that “I Have a Dream” speech voice and using his own natural voice and his own natural body and a more relaxed manner.

I’d like to switch gears just a little bit. Fear is a major theme in the play. At the crescendo of the actual mountaintop speech, Martin Luther King says, “I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” While fear is not a character, it runs throughout the play, always bubbling just under the surface. The sound design even allows us to experience King’s fear of being shot. I’m curious, how was that part of your process or part of your understanding of how he lived, or maybe how he and Camae both lived with fear?

CJ: It’s rather interesting how we’ve identified the motif of fear, which we’ve directly related to Martin, but have forgotten about or maybe not have thought as much about the other person in the play. What does Camae have to be fearful of? And if Camae is not fearful of the thunderclaps then what are the thunderclaps there to convey? And in going through that process, and really starting to take a deep dive into thinking about the Camae character, maybe she is the protagonist, the person who drives the play. Maybe she is causing these thunderclaps? Maybe Camae is there to do a job. Is she talking to the lightning, even making it happen?

There is a moment in the play where she starts talking to the lighting and she starts addressing Malcolm X, and maybe I’m pulling back a little from the play here, but historically that’s the point at which Martin was becoming more like Malcolm. We see Camae explicitly start channeling this and she begins to sound, in Martin’s words, like a Black Panther during her oration. She’s more Assata Shakur and Martin is on the cusp of being more like Jeremiah Wright. The audience can feel it, and we see Martin consider trading militant Black liberation for his tired “marching feet.”

CJ: Yeah, and Camae tells him marching isn’t working. We also discussed how Martin is more popular today, in 2024, than he was in 1968. She cuts him, she really cuts him when she says, “Who, you? You ain’t the president.” You can’t have all these different things that people are applauding you for in 2024. Not to mention that Martin did not include, I would say, the majority of African Americans in this country. . Black people in America are not a monolith. ’’He’s not really trying to understand why 16-year-old boys are out there robbing, looting, taking TVs. Larry Payne got shot… I live in DC, and it’s perfectly legal for somebody to stand their ground with a gun and kill a child for trying to steal their car. And instead of figuring out how to keep a child from looting, it becomes a big “Oh, we all know how wrong this is, but still, this child-killer is going to be set free. You know, legally he’s able to, he’s able to do that.” So Camae is more a part of that world that King has forgotten about. We’ve talked about Camae probably knowing people who were looting and maybe knowing people who were protesting, but also having family members who were doing the looting and understanding why.

In that moment, there’s something that seems like it’s like part confession or an apology from King about how his men swept him from the riot into a moving car, even though he truly wanted to be there…It really, maybe intentionally, rang hollow but it also gave us an image of King in his basic humanity, as someone who wasn’t always the one directing events, but who sometimes was carried along by the events.

CJ: Yes. You can talk about the infighting within the civil rights movement. Not every single civil rights leader and group were fighting for the same things. They were in cahoots with each other, but there was infighting, there was tension. They were like, you know, oh, we’re going here, you’re going there. Well, we’ll swap Martin out for Malcolm, and Martin had a really hard time with that. He thought he was the king.

One of the recurring themes is the idea of passing the baton and it’s brought up a number of times. How did that inform the process that your team went through? How large did that idea loom?

CJ: On day two of rehearsals, we confronted the baton pass in Camae’s speech, we call it “the BPO”. That baton passing on, to me, it’s not inclusive in the way we mean in 2024. It’s like the past 50-odd years, you know, of how inclusive we have been in the civil rights movement. It wasn’t just Black people. It wasn’t just one type of Black person. It wasn’t just white people who were supportive. If Black people want to consider themselves to be American, they have to consider other people American as well. And other people, Americans as a whole, we’re fighting for Martin’s causes. So including more cultural groups was important to me, including women was important to me, including contemporary things that really hit like George Floyd, because these are some of the things that are still happening today. It was important to know the activists and to know who these people are and what they’ve done. Realizing that most of them, a lot of them, are still alive, and that a lot of the ones that are dead were actually killed or assassinated. If they had they had the baton during the 60s and 70s and 80s and were able to pass it on to their grandchildren, they might be a multicultural family now. They’re able to pass it on to their students. They’re able to, you know, kind of let go and also go home in their own time.