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Katori Hall, 'The Mountain Top'

Theatre503, The Latchmere, 503 Battersea Park Road, SW11 3BW, 0207 978 7040, www.themountaintop.co.uk, 9 June – 4 July

Waging what one of his aides termed a “war on sleep”, Martin Luther King Jr spent the last months of his life trying to organise the Poor People’s Campaign: a new inter-racial, class-based movement among the poor, in which he hoped black preachers would play a key galvanising role.

Fighting insuperable odds to bring this vision to reality, King also found himself sucked into the struggle of striking sanitation workers in Memphis – and discovered that workers, ministers, unionists and civil rights leaders there had already forged the sort of alliances locally that he was trying to build at the national level.

It was on his return to Memphis – following an earlier disastrous march, that had descended into chaos – that King made his last speech (telling his 1500-strong audience that, while he might not get there with them, he had “been to the mountain top” and “seen the promised land”).

The following day he was assassinated.

These events – unforgettably recounted in Michael Honey’s magisterial Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton, 2008; ISBN 978 0 393330 53 3; 640pp; £12.99) – form the backdrop of Katori Hall’s new play, set in King’s motel room on the eve of his murder.

King and a young maid smoke, flirt, and debate nonviolence, black nationalism, and moustaches, before a slip-of-the-tongue sends matters in an entirely unexpected direction.

British actor David Harewood gives a standout performance, brilliantly capturing the cadences of King’s speech.

King has always been both more and less interesting than his reputation, and Hall, a native Memphian, has chosen to focus on King-the-human-being, rather than the broader political themes. At 80 minutes this is a slight work, but if it inspires folk to look at King afresh (or to read Honey’s book) then so much the better.

An intimate venue (I was only a few inches away from the stage), all 75 seats were taken on the day I went, so advance booking is probably essential.

Topics: Culture | History