Haunting is when something has happened which is too powerful to have only happened once. The event creates a psychic shock, and is too much for us to escape simply by waiting for time to pass. It echoes through time, through you. Smaller things remind you of it and in those moments of memory it lives again. Every time it returns, it returns to a new moment and finds you there. Theatre tries to do the same. Tonight has happened before. You will have heard the words you hear tonight before. Theatre wants to carry you somewhere new with them.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr. is a ghost. He is gone and present at the same time. He is easily invoked; I’m sure you must know who he is. When we talk about him, we are not talking about a man, but something larger. To remount The Mountaintop today is to declare that both it and King are currently haunting us.
The Mountaintop is a speculative fiction play in which Martin Luther King is visited by an angel the evening before his death. Here is the moment at which he is fully, finally, transformed from a man into something else. He is being haunted too; his angel is Camae, posing as a member of staff at the motel he is staying. She died only the night before, violently, she tells him; this is her first job. She understands who he is to the living, but she knows too who he is to history. She has seen the future and knows fully his place in it; the place of the movement he is part of. Here is where haunting breaks time. If she exists outside of time, how did she die last night? If this is her first day, how can she already have seen all of time?
Entering the theatre, I’d not read much about the play so I didn’t know for sure that this motel was the motel, that this night played before us was the night. But it’s in the back of the mind. I know how King dies, and I know where he dies. I know that as long as King is alive, there is a point his life is moving towards. But the play makes assassination impotent. It doesn’t indulge in shocking violence and it doesn’t linger on the circumstances of King’s death. The Mountaintop is more interested in the metaphysical question: King is part of an echo in history, why is that echo still here?
The play, too, is a ghost. The Mountaintop was first mounted in 2009, and it was a big, successful play – went from Theatre503 to Broadway within two years. 2009 was another world, a different moment. Haunted in its own way – the play was a conjuring from the start. And in 2021, Roy Alexander Weise has decided it is time again to resurrect the resurrection. Plays don’t just happen. You don’t just watch them. You’ve got to think about why a play is on, why is it here and why is it here now? And why is it here again?
Martin Luther King is a man. And the play doesn’t deny he was a man: he’s a flirt, he’s a bit of a womaniser, he’s not the perfect Christian (although Christians have to sin, really, otherwise they’d have nowt to do). Of course he’s a man, I already knew he was a man. When Camae confronts him, though, she is more concerned with what he represents. She agitates him with her support for the Black Panthers’ politics, with her insistence, ‘Fuck the white man’. What is important to Camae, as an angel and as a black woman in 1960s Memphis, is the capacity for political agitation that King represents, the movement of which he stands at the vanguard, and the change which is possible through it. She is dead too, but she’s not done with him yet.
We have these ghosts around for a reason. Hope is a utility. When King was murdered, he was planning The Poor People’s March on Washington. The march went ahead; the movement continued moving. Ghosts are useful – they are proof that the thing which was killed was still too big to stop. We turn people into things which are larger than people because we know that single people aren’t enough and never have been. Anyone who thinks an assassination is a full stop fails to understand that when someone is famous for giving speeches, they are famous for being listened to.
Time collapses again. Camae shows King the future. He sees us, and he sees past us. He sees the completion of the mission and his fear melts away because he understands the use of no longer being as small as a man. The truth is that we are outside of time because we are telling a story.
When King steps outside the bounds of the set, the house lights come up, his monologue cracks. Oh. That’s deliberate. That’s deliberate. You know he isn’t really Martin Luther King? He’s an actor called Adetomiwa Edun. He’s pretending to be Martin Luther King to help tell this story. What’s the story doing? For one thing it’s brought us here. For one thing it’s asking the question, what brought you here? You’re a load of adults sat in the dark pretending you’re watching a preacher talking to an angel in a hotel room in Memphis. What’s haunting you? Where have you been taken tonight? Where do you go when you leave?
The Mountaintop runs at Royal Exchange Theatre until 27th October. More info here.