Wright: at His 'Mountaintop,' Playing MLK
It isn’t easy portraying an icon, especially when that icon is the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just ask actor Bowman Wright.
Wright stars as King in playwright Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” now in the Kreeger Theater at Arena’s Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater through May 12. It is a play in which Hall imagines King’s last night on earth in a hotel room in Memphis, Tenn., just before his assassination in 1968.
“Let me say this first, I feel I’ve been blessed,” said Wright of playing King during a telephone interview while the play was still in rehearsal, heading toward previews. “I’ve been blessed to be able to do this play, which is an amazing work. And, of course, you feel a tremendous responsibility in some ways to do him honor and justice, because he’s such an important historical figure. I did a lot of reading, his writings, his biography. And we’re in Washington, where there’s the memorial and where he gave his 'I have a Dream Speech.' "
“The Mountaintop” imagines the icon as a human being, alone, except for an attractive maid whom he encounters in his room. “Sometimes, people want icons to be icons and not to be quite so human," Wright said. "But this play looks at the man, the leader, the human being aware of all of his roles and responsibilities, and his life as a man.”
Making its debut in London, “The Mountaintop” opened in New York with no less than Samuel Jackson in the role of King and Angela Bassett as the maid, now being performed by Joaquina Kalukango.
“Well, that’s something to consider, I suppose.” Wright said talking about Jackson. “You have to do the best you can and not worry about things like that.
“I think what Katori has done is to consider all of Dr. King—not just the rhetoric, the visionary, the leadership, the historic figure who is revered all over the world," Wright said. "You know, sometimes I feel his heart. It’s what we have to consider, how big hearts do the right thing, and that you have to do right by him. We are not doing a documentary here.”
In “The Mountaintop,” King has just given his other famous speech—the wrenching, full-of-foreboding “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech and now, tired and alone, he smokes, he goes to the bathroom and relates and reacts to the maid.”
Variety Magazine called the play “soul-stirring,” and it appears to be a remarkable play by a young writer who is an inaugural resident playwright of Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute and who hails from Memphis. Hall is the author of numerous plays including “Hurt Village,” “Remembrance” and “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning.” Director Robert O’Hara’s own play, “Antebellum,” won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play after being performed at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Wright has had difficult parts before, playing the older brother who has taken a job in an ongoing Lincoln show where the president is assassinated every night in “Topdog/Underdog” at the Marin Theatre Company and played Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Geva Thaetre Center and Cory in August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Actors Theatre in Louisville.
“By far, this has been the most challenging part I’ve ever done,” Wright said. “And the most rewarding."