Who was Dr. King? (documentary and play review)

by Leeya

King in the Wilderness

I used to see documentaries as a two-hour lecture on a subject, like a factual narration of a subject rather than a medium able to give the big picture through beautiful and tragic anecdotes. However, when watching King in the Wilderness, I realized documentaries are not always boring or dull. They can be remarkable. They are able to use video footage, interviews, anecdotes, and narration to tell the story of something or someone, the effect of the subject, and what the big picture idea is.

At the beginning of the documentary, a sweet anecdote is shared. Martin Luther King Jr. was leaving to go to another city and fulfill his work but his boys blocked the door, blocked the stairs, and jumped on the hood of the car, pleading with him not to leave. He assured him that he was coming back but inside, he told himself that he had to change his habits when he came back because he couldn’t stand to go through this every time.

The documentary portrayed him as a workaholic of sorts, who cared deeply for the world. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his whole life trying to repair the world. He sacrificed his physical health, mental health, family life, and marital life. For what? Just for him to get assassinated? Just to devastate his father, causing him to break down? Just to leave his kids wishing they had more time with their father?

But we must realize that Dr. King’s efforts were not for nothing. This documentary was able to inspire and uplift. It left me with the story of the legacy of Dr. King and encouraged me to think of next steps.

This is a documentary everyone would watch because it gives you a look into a side of Dr. King that we are not often taught about. It shows us that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was human, something we tend to forget because of his monumental accomplishments. As hard as it is to come to terms with, he died like everyone else. He got overwhelmed. His work took a toll on him. He had to make sacrifices. He had regrets. Few could imagine the pressure that he had on him: it was too overwhelming.

The Mountaintop

As some of you might remember, we went to see a play, The Mountaintop in June 2021 at Raleigh Little Theatre. We reported about this amazing play in our Bringing Food to Life edition in a Living Locally. I wanted to share my personal perspective on this experience and the feelings that went along with it. Watch our living locally to learn more.

There is something magical about plays. The realness of the actor being right in front of you. The experience of sensory details. The realization that there are no redos for the actors because it is live. The actors rely on endurance. This feeling especially hit home with me when I watched the play: The Mountaintop.

The Mountaintop is a play by American playwright Katori Hall. It is a fictional depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on Earth set entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the eve of his assassination in April 1968. In the play, a maid comes to deliver Martin Luther King Jr. coffee, late at night. But, as he soon finds out, this maid is actually an angel, there to deliver the news that he would die the next day. Through a long conversation, Martin Luther King Jr. comes to terms with his death, gives one final speech and dies.

We sat at the outdoor amphitheater at our local theater. The bench was hard and uncomfortable below me until I cushioned it with a pillow and convinced my parents to let me switch seats with them. It was a beautiful summer night with fireflies buzzing all around and the sweet scent that carried over from the rose garden nearby. The taste of South American cuisine was lingering in my mouth from dinner that night and there were people of all different races all around me. The set was beautiful with the iconic Lorraine hotel sign, lighting up the amphitheater and the beds on the set that looked ultra-soft. But the temperature got colder throughout the night. It was almost like the colder it got, the closer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got to his death. These sensory details carried other symbolisms like this to me and evoked emotions in me that came from usually ordinary objects and sights. I felt proud looking at the diversity in the play, black sitting with white, brown sitting with black, white sitting with brown. I know that this sight would have made Dr. King happy. The fireflies were little flecks of light, which felt like all the people that Dr. King fought for but didn’t make it in the end, coming to watch this play. The comfortable beds that Martin Luther King, Jr. slept in after his long day of work made me feel that he deserved it after his hard years of work. But the sickeningly sweet scent of roses that wafted over from the rose garden while we watched Dr. King getting closer to his death didn’t feel right.

It wasn’t just the sensory details that made it feel magical. It was also the fact that there was a real person in front of you, relying entirely on their own skills and the imagination of the crowd watching them. This idea especially resonated with me during The Mountaintop because the whole place was a two-person monologue. The actor who played Martin Luther King, Jr. did an amazing job of conveying the realness of the play through his booming voice and flawless acting. Later on, he told us that this was a very emotional role to play and carried a large mental burden on him.

At the end of the play, I went up to the set, which added to the magic of the play. I could smell the cigarette smoke that they were using on set for Martin Luther King’s smoking scenes. It added an eeriness to the scene. Up there, I got to meet the actor who had played Dr. King so well. He was a lot smaller than I imagined and I was in shock talking to him. Even though he was acting right in front of me, he did so well in portraying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that it didn’t seem real. I didn’t want to believe that he was a normal person, I wanted to believe that he was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., still alive before me.

There were two particular parts in the play that broke me. First, the scene where Dr. King was rushing to call his wife when he found out he was going to die the next day. He pleaded with the phone, begging for his wife to pick up just so he could get one last goodbye to his family. This scene made me anxious. I put myself in his shoes and thought about what I would do if I knew my death date but couldn’t get to say goodbye to my family. It made my heart beat faster just thinking about this.

The second scene was the one where the light flickered off, meant to symbolize the gunshot that killed Martin Luther King Jr. When that light flickered off, he was gone, just like that. If that light switch hit me that hard, I could barely imagine what hearing the actual gunshot felt like. It was that gunshot that broke the entire world and that light flicker that broke me.