Robert O’Hara Tweaks The Mountaintop for Arena Stage Co-Production
The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s award-winning play about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the night before he was killed at Memphis' Lorraine Motel, is enjoying a post-Broadway life at Arena Stage. But those who saw the work on Broadway should go into the new production with no preconceptions, because this version promises to be radically different.
In the Arena Stage/Alley Theatre co-production that opens tonight, one of director Robert O'Hara's biggest adjustments is the actors' ages. Those who saw the play on Broadway may recall its celebrity cast: Angela Basset, in her 50s, played Camae, who was written in the script to be in her 20s, and Samuel L. Jackson, in his 60s, is more than 20 years older than Dr. King when he was assassinated at age 39. O'Hara has changed that, and cast younger actors Joaquina Kalukango as Camae and Bowman Wright as Dr. King. "I want the play to be seen as it was written," he says.
O'Hara also promises to crank up the play's sexual energy. “I didn’t feel that there was much heat on Broadway. The play is really a ‘what if and will they’ sort of play, so there will be a larger amount of sexual tension in the room [in my production],” he says. “The room is very small. The space is very contained. That was the thing that jumped out at me when I first read the play.”
Those familiar with O’Hara’s repertoire may already know how much he enjoys risk-taking and experimentation in both his writing and directing. In this production, he'll bring more attention to how youth, sex, and power come together in a combustible cocktail.
Owing to aesthetic leanings of director Kenny Leon, the Broadway production was relatively two-dimensional, underutilizing the play's magical realism. The same can't be said for the show that opens tonight at Arena. “It’s a very magical play. We do a ton of magical realism,” says O’Hara. “There are a lot of factors that come into play when doing a play on Broadway. The benefit of doing the play in the regional theater is that you can do a lot of things that commerce, location, and ego won’t allow on the level of Broadway.”
The play runs March 29-May 12 at Arena Stage.