In what turned out to be his final speech before his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically invoked the biblical account of Moses’ trip to the mountaintop from which he beheld that promised land he would never reach in his lifetime.
That speech, with its eloquent reflections on the future of the civil rights struggle and introspection on King’s life, provides the inspirational spark for Katori Hall’s 2008 play, “The Mountaintop,” making its Los Angeles debut at the Matrix Theatre in fortuitous sync with Black History Month.
Set in a Memphis motel room on a stormy April evening in 1968, Hall’s snappy, impassioned two-hander imagines an encounter between King (Larry Bates) and Camae (Danielle Truitt), a maid who delivers his room service order.
Bates bears only a passing physical resemblance to King, and that helps decouple man from myth in the early going; an accomplished transformation occurs as he gradually invests the performance with more and more of King’s signature cadences and oratorical flourishes. Truitt’s Camae proves more than his match in eloquence and human foibles.
Though playwright Hall, who wrote the piece when she was in her 20s, has threaded it with abundant biographical details, they are the familiar stuff of Wikipedia articles. This isn’t the play for new discoveries or revelations about King the man, but it’s a powerful, poetic take on his legacy — its triumphs and still-unfulfilled promises — from the perspective of a generation that followed him.
“The Mountaintop,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays (dark March 7 and 21). Ends April 10. $30; pay-what-you-can Mondays. (323) 852-1445 or www.matrixtheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.