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MLK, a Memphis motel and 'The Mountaintop' at the Matrix Theatre

MLK, a Memphis motel and 'The Mountaintop' at the Matrix Theatre
A motel maid (Danielle Truitt) provides unexpected solace and guidance to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Larry Bates) in "The Mountaintop" at the Matrix Theatre. (I C Rapoport)

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.

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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.

Dispirited by the dwindling audiences on his most recent crusading road trip, King is at an ebb, jonesing for cigarettes and fearfully scouring his room for hidden wiretaps. The street-smart, much younger Camae rekindles more than his spirit as their dialogue evolves from flirtatious banter to full-fledged philosophical sparring match. However, her detailed knowledge of his private life correctly suggests that she's more than the newbie motel employee she appears to be at first.

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.

In an often funny, always emotionally charged staging that reunites the two actors with their director, Roger Guenveur Smith, from a previous production, the pair assuredly navigate the play's surprising sharp turn from hard-edged drama into magical realism.

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.

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"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.

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