Long live the King

Dion Johnstone & Crystal Balint. Image by David Cooper
Dion Johnstone & Crystal Balint. Image by David Cooper

Explore the human side of Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘The Mountaintop’

By Cheryl Minns, Arts Editor

On a cold, stormy night, a nervous Martin Luther King Jr. enters Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on the night before he is assassinated. Actor Dion Johnstone commands the stage as he portrays the civil rights activist’s final evening in that room in Arts Club’s production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, directed by Janet Wright.

In this two-person, one-act play, King meets a sassy maid named Camae (Crystal Balint) who helps him prepare his speech for the next day. After having a few laughs, the evening takes a serious turn for King when he discovers Camae isn’t who she claims to be.

To prepare for the role of King, Johnstone created a playlist of King’s interviews and speeches, noting the difference in his voice when speaking to large crowds compared to one-on-one interviews.

“I still listen to the playlist in my dressing room before each performance to keep absorbing his passionate way of speaking,” Johnstone wrote to the Other Press.

During the show, Johnstone delivers a solid performance when he portrays King practicing his speech in the hotel room, his booming voice filling the theatre. He also excels during the quieter moments of the play, such as King confiding in Camae about his fear of not having enough time to achieve everything he needs to do.

“There’s a moment when, upon reflecting on how Malcolm X was only 39 when he was assassinated, King realizes that he too is 39. This moment resonates powerfully for me because I’m also 39,” Johnstone wrote, reflecting on his connection to his portrayal of King.

“I relate to the feeling of being on the road, rarely being settled at home, feeling worn out but not being able to stop the momentum of what needs to be done. Needing a break, but at the same time feeling the pressure to accomplish more. I struggle with those feelings a lot,” he wrote.

In preparing for the role of Camae, which Balint passionately pursued after falling in love with the play in 2013, she researched the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the attitudes of the era, familiarizing herself as best she could with the issues of the time.

“I watched a lot of footage of documentaries and films that tackled the subject in order to better understand what Camae might be thinking, feeling, doing during such a turbulent but hopeful period in our world history,” Balint wrote to the Other Press.

“Camae is a unique character in the pages of the play, but she’s also an expression of an average African American woman living day-to-day amidst this era of great change,” she wrote.

Balint portrays Camae with fierce determination even though the maid struggles with the difficult challenge she’s been tasked with. She plays a necessary part in helping King accept that he won’t be able to achieve all of his goals, but that he has set things in motion for others to accomplish.

“There’s also a moment when Martin Luther King Jr. has a panic attack and Camae struggles to bring him out of it,” Johnstone wrote, referring to a pivotal scene in the play where Camae begins to reveal her true identity. “It’s a powerful moment that I feel brings us right to the core of the play.”

“My hope is that audiences who come to see The Mountaintop enjoy a laugh or two, are engaged, are entertained, but walk away with things to reflect on,” Balint wrote. “This show asks a lot of its audience, but it also starts a dialogue that perhaps we need to reignite.”

Arts Club’s The Mountaintop runs until March 14 at the Granville Island Stage. Tickets start at $29 and can be ordered online at ArtsClub.com