A BRAVE MARTYR OF THE NEGRO REVOLUTION: A FULL REVIEW OF KATORI HALL’S PLAY THE MOUNTAINTOP IN THE CONTEXT OF THE PRISON LETTERS OF GEORGE JACKSON
(WARNING: This review explains the whole story of this play so if you do not want to know the whole story because you plan to see this play and you want to be surprised, please don’t read this review)
In her play The Mountaintop, Katori Hall presents a very sympathetic portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his last night alive. Her stage directions tell us: “Lights up. Night. April 3, 1968. Room 306. The Lorraine Motel. Memphis, Tennessee.” While none of us actually know what exactly went through the mind of Martin Luther King the night before he died, it is obvious that the literary imagination of Katori Hall in producing Martin Luther King is one that contains his most important political message of anti imperialism. In about one hundred minutes, all of which take place in a hotel room on stage, we learn so much more about Martin Luther King Jr., namely his mortality but also the brutal world in which he loses his mortality. The play assumes a knowledge about the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. on American society and captures important and threatening words and messages King conveyed, mainly his growing critique of American imperialism. In fact, King’s first words are his reading his own speech saying: “Why America is going to hell…America you are too ARROGANT! [caps in Hall’s original]” This is a direct reference to King’s April 4, 1967 speech at the Riverside Church where he condemns America for killing people of color in Vietnam. He later said in this speech: “the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of Vietnamese people” (Washington, ed., 239). His speech was so controversial that he was killed exactly one year following this speech on April 4, 1968.
Hall chooses to begin her interpretation of King with this utterance of “America you are too ARROGANT!” He then calls room service and asks for coffee. Soon, a maid Camae, arrives, whom stage directions tell us is “a beautiful young maid.” When she comes in the room and sets the tray on a table downstage from her entrance, and bends down, King “appreciates his view.” Hall shows King as a man who is weakened by a woman’s physical beauty. This is one of known human foibles of King that made up this brilliant thinker and intellectual. Camae tells King “shame I ain’t get a chance to see ya tonight. I heard you carried on a storm up at Mason Temple.” Katori Hall told many news outlets that her own mother, Carrie Mae, was planning to see King on the night of his actual April 3rd speech at Mason Temple. She did not get to attend after talk of a bomb threat. In Camae we see important connections to Hall herself. Through Camae, Hall provides a living breathing character who can more directly attest to the strength of that speech. When King asked how Camae knew about this speech, she replies, “Negro talk strike faster than lightnin.”…I would like to have seen that. Somethin’ to tell my chiren.” We see a desire to have been there on April 3rd, 1968, by the real Carrie Mae like the Camae in the play.
King is impressed by Camae’s choice of cigarettes: Pall Malls. In fact , before Camae even arrives, we hear him yelling outside his motel room to Ralph Abernathy for some Pall Malls. When King sees Camae taking out a pack of Pall Malls, he is impressed. He coaxes her to smoke one with him: “just one. Til my friend come back with my pack.” Camae replies: “you sho’ll do try hard at it,” and joins King in a smoke. They talk. Camae tells King it must be “grand fun” to preach the way he does, then she adds an exclamation: “Must be muthaf—kin’ grand to mean so much to somebody. Shit, GODDAMN must be grand. (Beat) Where a needle and threat to sew up my mouth? Here I is just a cussin all up in front of you, Dr. Kang. I cuss worser than the sailor with the clap…Fallin’ straight to hell.” King replies “No ma’am, ‘cordin’ to your face, you done fell straight from heaven.” Camae replies saying “You lil’ pulpit poet you. I likes you.” King replies to that: “I likes you, too.” The phone rings and its King’s wife, Dr. Coretta Scott King. King converses yet as Camae tries to leave, he motions for her to stay. When King finishes, Camae says: “She’s beautiful. Yo’ wife. I seen’t her on the tv down at Woolworth’s, too. Coretta Scott K—“ but before she finishes the “King,” King interrupts, according to the directions, in a correcting way, with “Mrs. King.” Here Hall introduces the class difference between King and Camae here. Before Camae gains any wild notions of familiarity with Dr. King himself, he makes sure to dispel them by reminding her that his wife is Mrs. King, not Coretta, to Camae. Hall’s King in an extremely subtle way reminds Camae not to expect their encounter to last more than that night. And according to the play and to history, it really doesn’t. Hall in an important way shows King’s upper class status as a trained intellectual who makes sure he does not let the status of working class African American affect what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has described in Righteous Discontent standards of class respectability. In King’s mind, if Camae is familiar enough to call Mrs. King Coretta, then she might be familiar enough to tell others about King’s weaknesses with her which, in King’s mind, may in fact be a familiarity too threatening to the causes that King was fighting for. However Hall shows us that later that Camae has a strong passion for fighting the race and class oppression that King is fighting against.
King asks for Camae’s opinion on a speech he gives and his looks. After he looks in the mirror, he tells her “I done got to looking old.” When King asks Camae whether women prefer men with wrinkles, Camae chooses to mock King by telling him: “I don’t. I likes ‘em young and wild. Like me.” When King says “I used to be young and wild myself,” Camae replies “you a preacher. That’s part a’ y’all job requirement. How you know what you ain’t supposed to do if you ain’t done it, yaself? Folk won’t listen to you otherwise. That what I call ‘work experience.’ More than qualify ya for the position.” King asks Camae for another cigarette and Camae repeats her refrain, “you SHO’LL try hard at it.” As she prepares to leave one more time, King returns her newspaper to her, and notices that the date on it reads “April 4th.” When he asks her how she got the next day’s newspaper, Camae “shrugs” and says “Tomorrow already here.” Hall is obviously at this moment playing with time and using Camae to do so. In her mind while she was writing this, Camae represents for her, like her mother, a reservoir for the living embodiment of King. Camae in this play blurs time distinction for King. Camae is by now he’s concluded an unusual guest in his room. King reads the headline of the paper she brings:
“’King Challenges Court Restraint. Vows to March.’ [he says] They got that right! This Mayor Loeb calls himself not allowing these sanitation workers to march (to himself). Over my dead body. (reading) ‘Yesterday two U.S. marshals sped across town to serve the Negro leaders with copies of the order. They found Dr. King and four other defendants at the Lorraine Motel…the city said it was seeking the injunction as a means of protecting Dr. King…We are fearful that in the turmoil of the moment, someone may even harm Dr. King’s life…and with all the force of language we can use, we want to emphasize that we don’t want that to happen…” (Chuckles to himself) Wish the mayor had jurisdiction over air planes, too. You know, Camae, somebody called in a bomb threat on my place from Atlanta to Memphis? Thank God they didn’t find one.”
To this Camae concludes “civil rights’ll kill ya’ fo’ them Pall Malls will.” Following this, thunder strikes, and King puts his hand over his chest. The stage directions tell us he begins to breathe hard. The thunder is a shock not only to King but also to the unsuspecting audience member, which helps, on some level, for the audience member to feel some empathy for King and the growing fragility of his life. Hall is rightfully calling into the question the Memphis mayor’s promise of security, especially when at this point his life has been threatened in so many ways. Camae tells King that he should not be scared of a “lil’ lightnin.” When King is about to tell Camae what he thinks the thunder really sounds like, Camae interrupts and says the thunder sounds like “fireworks.” Instead of countering this simile, King agrees and spares her his concerns about the real threat on his life. Camae says: “Mama used to take us on down to Tom Lee Park to see the fireworks every Fourth of July.” When King says “Independence Day,” Camae replies “That right, y’all bougie Black folk call it Independence Day. I can’t seem to quite call it that yet.” Here Hall again presents the class difference between King and Camae here again. By calling King “bougie” Hall lets us know that Camae is definitely from the working class ranks in a closer way than King is. King then tells Camae: “You sho’ll is pretty, Camae.” Camae replies: “that ‘bout the third time you done tole me that.” We see how Hall shows again that noticing the beauty of women was one of King’s main preoccupations. When King feels self conscious about this, Camae replies: “Shuga, shush. You just a man. If I was you, I’d be starin’ at me, too.”
He later has an important debate with Camae about the utility of the tactic of marching in the fight for Black liberation. When King says that Negro folks done seemed to have lost their manners in Detroit, Camae says that if that is the case, she needs to move up there. Camae says that “walking will only get you so far, Preacher Kang.” King replies, “we’re not just walking; we’re marching.” Camae then replies: “whatever it is, it ain’t workin.” King says its not working because of “trifiling Negroes who call themselves using a peaceful protest to get a free color television…We’re marching for a living wage…not a damn color tv! It just gives these police an excuse to shoot innocent folks. Like that boy…that 16 year old boy they shot. Last week? (quietly to himself) Larry Payne. Larry Payne. Larry Payne.” Hall powerfully shows the critique King makes against rioting Blacks who ruin his cause when they try to steal material items. This is an incredibly sympathetic King. Hall’s King wants all Black people to relinquish material items for the greater cause of social justice. He finishes to Camae: “Well, we back [in Memphis] and we gonna do it right this time. So Larry Payne won’t have to have died in vain. Douglas Valentine writes that the day King arrived in Memphis on March 28, 1968, then Governor of Tennessee Buford Ellington called out the Tennessee National Guard. At 2PM that day, Larry Payne, a black high school student was shot and killed by Memphis cops (DiEugenio, ed., 515). The policemen claimed that Payne was attempting to loot a service station on South 3rd Street, and that he attacked them with a butcher knife. We have heard similar falsified reports by police justifying their brutality and murder of unarmed Black men. This, according to Hall, is a murder that King feels on some level responsible for. He is marching with sanitation workers so that their cause is not lost. King talks about how much he feels attacked by the mainstream media. When he hands her a cigarette and she takes it, he notices how she inhales and says: “you smoke like a man.” Camae replies: “you smoke a like a fruit,” to which King says: “aww, Camae don’t use those kinda words…” Camae replies: “what, you root for the fruits?” King says: “indeed I do. Alla God’s children got wings.” We see a side of King that is sympathetic towards gay rights, like his wife faithfully was, throughout her life. We get small clues about who Camae really is throughout this play. When Camae teaches King the way she thinks one ought to smoke, “like its going out of style,” she says she wishes she could take a picture of it. King then asks her if she is with the FBI, to which Camae replies: “Naw. Something bigger.” This is yet another clue about Camae’s identity. Camae tells King if he wants to lead the people he has to smoke like the people. We see the intimacy growing between them in this hotel room. King teaches Camae about the very personal ambitions he has for more rights for sanitation workers. And Camae teaches King how to break the mold of upper class respectability in order to accomplish his ambition of acquiring rights for sanitation workers. When Camae says “walkin’ will only get us so far,” King replies by saying “killin’ will get you hung.” King advocates a more moderate approach in the face of wanton white racist violence. Hall shows us a leader who is not willing to see violence as an effective tactic to fight white racism. Hall shows King breaking class norms and gender norms of respectability most strongly when King directly asks Camae “if you were me, what would you do?” Hall shows how King is challenging the traditional patriarchy of the ministerial organization he belonged to, which was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), by showing genuine interest in a woman’s ideological opinion. We know from Barbara Ransby’s biography of grassroots organizer Ella Baker that King like other SCLC ministers had problems seeing women in roles other than secretarial. Ransby writes:
A rhetoric of racial equality marked the public pronouncements of SCLC leaders, while old hierarchies based on gender inequities endured within their ranks. Baker refused to accept the situation in silence. She criticized ministerial leaders who came to meetings late and left early, disregarding the inconveniences they caused for the female clerical staff. They expected the women workers to cater to them, Baker complained. Although she never publicly named names, Baker also alluded to unprincipled sexual behavior on the part of some male ministers involved in the movement. She confided to one researcher that certain SCLC ministers would come into the office in the afternoon “after spending the morning at some sister’s house doing what they shouldn’t have been doing… you see, I know too many stories.” The ministers’ arrogant assumption that they stood above the moral rules they preached to others cost them Baker’s respect as ministers and as men (Ransby, 185).
By showing King’s interest in what Camae would say, Hall shows how King challenged the traditional hierarchy. Yet we know this was motivated on some level by King’s physical attractiveness to Camae. However this raises the question of whether his motives was genuinely softening her to him, or genuinely wanting to know her ideology on this matter of fighting for racial justice. In order to show him what she would do, Camae asks to borrow King’s jacket and to wear his shoes. She then preaches a sermon reminiscent of one by Mother/Sister in Marcus Gardley’s play Every Tongue Confess. The most compelling part of this sermon is that draws most audience attention is the very end. This sermon is also reminiscent of the one by Meridian Henry in James Baldwin’s Blues For Mister Charlie. It deals with the question of how to deal with white racism most directly. In it Camae preaches:
“We have gathered here today to deal with a serious issue…HOW do we deal with the white man? I have told you that the white man is our brother. And he should be treated as such…But it is hard to do this when our brother beats his fist upon our flesh. When he greets us with “Nigger” and “Go back to Africa,” when he punches us in our bellies swelling with hunger…To this I say, my brethren, a new day is coming. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, and today is the day that I tell you to KILL the white man! (sotto voice) But not with your hands. Not with your guns. But with your miiiiiiind! (back to regular voice)”
Camae turns this into a comical moment when she proceeds to curse at the end of this, but the significance of this sermon as a literary piece is not only its theme of how clergy teach Blacks how to cope with white racism, it is also significant because this is exactly the message that George Lester Jackson shares that the only way to kill the violence of white supremacy on the lives of Black people is to use one’s mind. To sharpen one’s consciousness. However this important message becomes lost in the comedy that Camae plays up when she curses at the end of this sermon.
King begins to sympathize with her message of fighting back the forces that violently try to stamp out self-determination of Black people. Camae says “last time I heard you was preachin’ ‘everybody the same.’ Negro folk. White folk. We all alike.” King chooses to explain this by saying “we all scared. Scared of each other. Scared of ourselves. They just scared. Scared of losin’ somethin’ that they’ve known their whole lives. Fear makes us human. We all need the same basic things. A hug. A smile.”
King and Camae end up in a well written, well performed, dramatic dispute about how Camae delivered her sermon. This exchange builds the intimacy between these characters. However when Camae asks King how her oratorical skills compare to his, he says “I’m better…Nobody can make it pretty like me. I’ve been doing this for years, darlin.’ Gonna be doin it till the day I die.” When Camae asks if it was good for a woman, King says yes and once again affirms the patriarchal expectations that subjugate a woman’s place below a man’s when it comes to preaching. However when Camae asks if her sermon was good for a man, King replies: “then you’d be Malcolm X.” Camae plays with King and says: “so you callin’ Malcolm X a sissy?” She runs to the room door, opens it, and yells outside the room that Martin is calling Malcolm a sissy. Camae is playing on the supposed feud between the two. She tells Martin that “God liked Malcolm X. And you woulda liked him, too. He didn’t drank. Smoke. Cuss. Or…Cheat. On. His Wife.” Camae means for this line to sink into Martin. When Camae tells King that Malcolm is in heaven, Martin shows some doubt: “I don’t know, now. He talked a lot of…”Truth?” Camae interjects. To this King replies: “A lot of violence. He had a weakness for violent words. Speak by the sword, die by the sword.” Hall shows a Martin Luther King who believed the mainstream narrative about Malcolm X dying by violence because he supposedly preached violence. Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm challenges this mainstream memory of Malcolm. Camae seems to understand better than Hall’s King, perhaps because of her working class experience, that Malcolm spoke by love when he critiqued the colonial relationship that upholds white racist violence against Blacks. She tells King “speak by love, die by hate. We all have weaknesses, Preacher Kang. I’m sho’ you got yo’ own. Just ain’t never let nobody…know. For what it worth, I know God like you. The real you.” Camae corrects King’s misunderstanding of Malcolm’s murder by saying that Malcolm was speaking out of his love for Black people but died, not by his own hatred, but by the hatred of the powers-that-be that paid mercenaries to kill him because he was threatening their colonial order. George Jackson in an April 4, 1970 letter to his lawyer Fay Stender writes:
We were colonized by the white predatory fascist economy. It was from them that we evolved our freak subculture, and the attitudes that perpetuate our conditions. These attitudes cause us to give each other up to the Klan pigs. We even on occasion work gun in hand right with them. A Black killed Fred Hampton; blacks working with the CIA killed Malcolm X…”
When Camae says “die by hate” she is referring to this betrayal by mercenaries that Jackson discusses. The mercenaries, according to Jackson, gave themselves and Malcolm and Martin, up to the Klan pigs. Mercenaries are those who choose to cooperate with the state in a targeted assassination. By discussing Malcolm’s weaknesses, Camae reduces the magnitude of Malcolm’s strategic use of violence in King’s mind. It is no longer a primary direct cause of Malcolm’s death. Instead it is one of many steps, one of which includes the angering of what Jackson calls the “Klan pigs.” The presence of George Jackson’s writings is especially significant in understanding the gulf between Martin and Malcolm and how they’re being presented by Hall. They represent two different ideologies that strove for the same goal of Black freedom. In the play, Martin faces his death as he is organizing sanitation workers on a strike. Malcolm faces his death as he is about to organize revolutionaries on the continent of Africa against European colonization. Both were fighting for the same goal however within two different streams: a Negro revolution and a Black revolution. In Malcolm’s seminal “Message to the Grassroots” on November 10th, 1963, Malcolm articulated the difference between the two: “revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way” (Marable, 264). What took place since Martin and Malcolm’s deaths in the sixties was in fact a Negro revolution in terms of Negroes being allowed in higher education and public offices like never before. The Negro revolution brought about the end of the segregated buses in Montgomery, the end of segregated bus travel, the end of formal voting discrimination. However this revolution fell short of what Malcolm was trying to achieve in a Black revolution. A Black revolution required a total redistribution of resources and wealth from the current society. Camae seemed to understand the need for a Black revolution in completely securing the rights of Blacks that have been historically discriminated. In a March 1967 letter to his mother, George Jackson writes:
“you know I have grown very, very tired of talking and listening to talk. King and his kind have betrayed our bosom interests with their demagogic delirium. The poor fool knows nothing of the opposition’s true nature and hasn’t the perception to read and learn by history and past events…That nonviolent theory is practicable in civilized lands among the civilized people, the Asians and the Africans, but a look at European history shows that anything of great value that ever changed hands was taken by force of arms…The depressed peoples of the world are very shortly going to grow tired of being wooed and lulled into passivity and quiet endurance by chromium and neon lights…They’ll come out of their coma with a bloodlust and justified indignation for social injustice that will sweep the asphalt right from under the empire builders” (90).
Like Camae, George Jackson sympathizes with the strategic use of violence to fight against white racist violence. She humanizes Malcolm before Martin and reduces him from the stereotype that the mainstream constructed following his death in order to make him appear crazy for wanting to effectively combat white racist violence. Hall continues to humanize Martin when Camae tells him “I don’t like no man wit’ no smelly feet…Who woulda thunk Dr. Kang got stanky feet. Oooo! And you got holes in yo’ socks, too?” King replies: “you make it easy…to make a man forget about it all. About…all…this…” Camae replies prophetically: “that’s what I’m here for.” After hearing another thunder strike, King, we’re told, “stumbles back in a daze.” We then discover he can’t breathe. He seems to be losing consciousness. Desperately trying to resuscitate him, Camae calls him another name, “Michael! Michael! MICHAEL!! Michael, just breathe!” When King slowly regains consciousness, he asks Camae how she knew to call him that: “that is my name. My childhood name. How do you know my real name? My Christian name?” When Camae does not answer directly, he accuses her of being a spy and tells her to get out. The stage directions tells us: “Enraged. King overturns the furniture, searching for bugs he may have glossed over.” Hall shows how concerned King was about being manipulated by the state whom he assumed uses his weakness—an attractive woman—to derail him from his important work of organizing sanitation workers. He tells Camae: “sending tapes to my wife. Tryin’ to break up my family. Tryin’ to break my spirit!” Camae replies: “Preacher Kang, calm down!” He drags Camae to the door in order to push her out but when he opens the door he sees a wall of snow covering the door way. The stage directions tell us: “a huge gust of wind blows in snow that piles at his feet. He lets go of Camae’s arm. He stands in awe. King is now in panic. He rushes to the phone, hears no dial tone, then the stage directions tell us “he backs himself against the wall.” He is apparently at his wits end. He yells at Camae; “How do you know so much about me!?!? Who in the Hell are you? WHO IN THE HELL ARE YOU? The directions tell us that “Camae blows on the end of a cigarette. It lights up. King stands sunned. Looooong aaaaas beat.”
The stage lighting goes from white to lavender in order to suggest a dramatic shift in the story that Hall is telling. It play from now on takes an ironic twist. Camae tells King she is an angel “in the flesh.” King replies: “I’m not going to Hell am I?” To which Camae replies: “Naw. Naw. Naw. Heaven is where we headed…Believe you me I ain’t want this job. First day? Bring over you? The Kang? I ain’t wanna do it. But God been gettin’ these prayers from a littlun named Bunny.” Camae reveals that her role in King’s life is to transition King from the earthly plain to the spiritual plain. The Bunny Camae is referring to is Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter Bernice, who is a preacher based in Atlanta. King then talks about the fear he faces: “I have felt fear…My insides churned and I fought hard to keep them from leaping out of my mouth. You see, a Negro man is not safe in a pulpit. Not even in a pulpit of his own making. Sunday mornings have been the mornings when I am most afraid. Cause in this country a pulpit is a pedestal and we all know that in America, the tall tree is felled first. Tall trees have more wood to born, Camae. We are the sacrifice.” Hall is able to write a King that speaks in the customary metaphors of his memorable speeches. Tall trees are distinguished from other trees because they speak the truth in terms of denouncing imperialist projects, such as the anti-gay legislation that white Americans evangelicals push in Uganda. By typing himself as a “Negro,” preacher, Martin is also affirming Malcolm’s 1963 Message to the Grassroots by suggesting he would rather a Negro revolution than a Black one, which does not fundamentally change the structure, colonial relationship, nor wealth distribution in society, but simply allows more people of color access to it.
Hall shows a very mortal, very human struggle in King when he begins to resist her orders to go with her. Camae says: “Tomorrow. When it time, you gone have to take my hand.” To this King replies: “Tomorrow? But I’m not ready to die.” King fights Camae and God, in order to finish the speech that he quoted at the beginning of this play: “Well, I gots to finish my sermon and I need to be alone to finish my sermon so…you gone have to fly on away.” Camae replies: “Preacher Kang, now you/ gone have to put that down.” To this King issues a reply that George Jackson himself would have made about the inhumanity of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam: “A country that sends its boys to bathe little-bitty brown babies in the blood of our green is headed for a crossroads of conscience.” While he writes and delivers more lines from he wants to be his next sermon, Camae interrupts at each line, once saying: “Preacher Kang, you makin’ my job harder.” Then King replies: “Hard on YOU? What about it bein’ hard on me? On my family? On Corrie? On the movement? HAS GOD THOUGHT ABOUT THAT? [caps in Hall’s original]” Here we see the very real personal battle King has with his own mortality. This is perhaps what makes Samuel L. Jackson’s performance so powerful. As an audience member, I am able to witness and appreciate the very personal struggle King has with leaving his work so soon, leaving his family so soon, leaving the struggle for racial justice so soon. He tells Camae: “We still got work to do. I got more sermons in me, more goals, more…plans!…I wanna make this one a reality! The plan. It’s all in the works. It’s called the Poor People’s Campaign!” After Camae sits and listens to King’s plan to have a poor people’s march on the Washington mall, she says: “Yo men’ll carry it on.” King says: “But I’m the leader of this movement. The head of the body.” To this Camae says: “Well, the body will just have to grow another head ‘cause Memphis is the end of the road for you.” After appealing to her by trying to convince Camae of the importance of his plans, King tries another direction. He points to the plight of society and makes incredibly important connections between the U.S. occupation of peoples of color around the world and the colonized condition of American Blacks inside the U.S.: “how can we fight the war in Vietnam but not the wars against Negroes in our streets? How can we try to put a man on the moon, but not feed starving children in Mississippi? There’s just so much I gotta do. So much I haven’t yet accomplished. So much…I GOTTA FINISH WHAT I STARTED!!” This connection King makes between the oppressed peoples of Vietnam and those in the U.S. is a crucially important one that George Jackson refers to in his June 4, 1970 letter to Angela Davis:
“Do you know the secret police go to great lengths to murder and consequently silence every effective Black person the moment he attempts to explain to the ghetto that our problems are historically and strategically tied to the problems of all colonial people? This means that they are watching you closely…Its no coincidence that Malcolm X and M.L. King died when they did. Malcolm X had just put it together…I seriously believe King knew all along but was holding out and presenting the truth in such a way that it would affect the most people situationally without getting them damaged by gunfire. You remember what was on his [King’s] lips when he died. Vietnam and economics, political economy.”
Katori Hall shows us that this indeed is what was on King’s lips: making connections between the oppressed people in Vietnam to the oppressed people in the cities of the U.S. Despite the power of this important anti-imperialist ambition, Camae, convinces King that her ambition of taking King from the human plane to the spiritual plane is more important. King then says he because he’s had the favor of God this far, that he should be allowed to stay longer instead of leaving the human plane with Camae. Camae agrees: “I done read yo’ blessings file. It bigger than yo’ FBI file and bigga than the Bible. I know it might be hard for you to leave this life…yo family…and all yo plans. But you gone have to pass off that baton little man. You in a relay race, albeit the fastest runner we done ever seen’t. But you ‘bout to burn out, super star. You gone need to pass off that baton…” King still resists. Camae calls, what the directions tell us “a really long phone number.” She first talks to “St. Augustine” and asks him to speak to God, we discover that Hall has genderized God: “What She doing? [Hall capitalizes the “s” in “she”].” Based on the audience’s reaction, this looks like a comic relief of the show. Hall is playing with the audience’s reverence and respectability of God. On one hand Hall challenges the idea that God is so far above that he does not care nor know about the details and inner workings of each of our lives. On the other hand, Hall is supporting the idea that God is compassionate and can take any form, including the form of a Black woman with an attitude who intends to teach humility to an articulate prophet in a Martin Luther King Jr. When Camae tells King that St. Augustine is going to get “her,” God, on the cell, King shows his 1968 sensibilities and asks what a “cell” is. Camae says “it’s like…a phone that ain’t got no cord.” When God comes on the line to speak to Camae, she tells God: “Well, there’s a bit of a problem. He say he ain’t ready. That what I told him. I know…I know…I KNOW.” When Camae gives the phone to King to speak to God, King says:
“you don’t sound like I thought you’d sound. No, no, no. Pardon me, if that offends. I like how you sound. Kinda like my grandmamma…You see I have always listened to you, honored your word, lived by your word…(he lowers his voice) for the most part (raises it back to normal) God, please don’t strike me down for asking this, but…I want to live. I have plans. Lots of plans in my head and in my heart and my people need me. They need me. And I need to see them to the Promised Land. I know that’s not what I said earlier tonight, I know, but…I wasn’t lying exactly (he looks at Camae) I just didn’t know she was comin’ so, so…soon…There have been many a nights when I have held my tongue when it came to You. But not tonight, NOT TONIGHT. I have continuously put my life on the line, gave it all up. Gave it all up for You and Your word. You told me, that I’d be safe. Safe in your arms. You protected me all this time, all this time! Glued a pair of wings to my back, but now that I’ve flown too close to the sun I’m falling into the ocean of death. God how dare you take me now. NOW! I beg of you. I plead—God? Ma’am? God?”
Long heavy silence.
Camae asks King what God said and King said he thinks she hung up. Apparently Hall’s God is not ready to hear or condone non compliance with King. King concluded: “God hung up on me. She forsook her servant.” Camae replies: “She ain’t forsake you neither. She just ain’t wanna hear yo shit. She got the right. She is God, ya know?” King and Camae descend into a playful pillowfight. Here we see what an hour within a room does for physical intimacy between King and Camae. The directions tell us: “he finally somehow pins Camae onto her back. He is on top of her. They stop. Gazing into each other’s eyes. Out of breath. A bit sweaty.” King soon says to Camae: “Hold me.” The next stage directions tell us: “Beat. King’s eyes well with tears and this strong grown man dissolves into the child no one ever saw. He slides down on top of her. Crying. Crying his heart out. Sobbing. And Camae holds him. And rubs his back as if he were a child.” Here King seems to realize his own mortality at this moment. Especially when he tells Camae: “I never wanted to do this. I just wanted to be a minister in my small church.” We know this is true, especially from Timothy Tyson’s biography of Robert F. Williams, which tells us that E.D. Nixon was largely responsible for recruiting Martin Luther King to preach at the Montgomery Bus Boycott (116). Camae shows an understanding of this however tells King clearly: “when your maker calls you, you must heed the call.” To this King says: “I just wanted to be a minister. That was enough. That was enough…” Camae replies: “But God had bigger plans for you.” When King asks why him, Camae says to him: “why not you?” King then tries to do all important things in his mind that he deems important, from leaving his men instructions to calling his wife. He starts going over in his mind all the things that he thought he should have done to be a better father or a better husband. This is perhaps my favorite part of the play. Because you see the powerful within the most personal thoughts of King that Hall imagines. Camae consoles him: “you did what you had to do. We needed you. The world needed you.” King is moved by his doubts: “I don’t know for what! I’ve sacrificed my marriage, my family. My health, for what?” Camae then calls King a saint but he does not accept the title and says that if Camae is an angel, then “God must ‘a been impressed with how you’ve lived your life.” Camae said that no, God wasn’t. We then get a beautiful monologue, by the end of which not only is the actress Angela Bassett crying, but so is some audience members. We now discover how Camae gets to the place where she is at the moment now, of having to take Dr. King to the other side:
“I’ve cursed. But what I’m ashamed of most is I’ve hated. Hated myself. Sacrificed my flesh so that others might feel whole again. I thought it was my duty. All that I had to offer this world. What else was a poor Black woman, the mule of the world, here for? Last night, in the back of a alley I breathed my last breath. A man clasped his hands like a necklace ‘round my throat. I stared into his big blue yes, as my breath got ragged and raw and I saw the Hell this old world had put him through. The time he saw his father hang a man. The time he saw his mother raped. I felt so sorry for him. I saw what the world had done to him, and I still couldn’t forgive. I hated him for stealing my breath. When I passed on to the other side…I was just a cryin’ weepin’ at her feet. Beggin’ her not to throw me down. All that sinnin’. All that grime on my soul. All that hatred in my heart. But then I looked up and saw that She was smilin’ down at me. She opened her mouth, and silence came out. But I heard her loud and clear. ‘I got a special task for you and if you complete it, all your sins will be washed away. I opened my file. And I saw my task was you. What could little old me, give to big old you? I thought you was gone be perfect. Well, you ain’t, but then you are. You have the biggest heart I done ever knownt. You have the strength to love those who could never love you back. If I had just a small fraction of love you have for this world, then maybe, just maybe I could become half the angel you are” (65).
King then asks Camae whether he will die at the at the hands of a white man too, and she says: “yes. Speak by love. Die by hate.” Hall speaks to the ways that individuals allow themselves to be used by mercenaries to carry out hateful acts of murder, the way Camae’s murderer did. Memphis citizen Olivia Castling, who heard the fatal shot that killed King and witnessed the escape by the murderer said that the man she saw running from the scene of the crime was NOT James Earl Ray, “because the gentleman [she] saw was heavier than Ray” (DiEugenio, ed., 492). While Hall’s play does not challenge the mainstream narrative we get about King’s murder committed by James Earl Ray, it does raise issues about how King’s murder was motivated by hate. James W. Douglass’ investigative work challenges this mainstream narrative particularly in his article “The King Conspiracy Exposed in Memphis.” He writes that in December 1999, a Memphis jury concluded that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a conspiracy that involved a Memphis bar and grill owner named Loyd Jowers and “others including governmental agencies” (479). Jowers said that he had been asked to help in the murder of King and was told that there would be a decoy in the plot. The decoy was apparently James Earl Ray. Jowers said that the man who asked him to help in the murder was a Mafia connected produce dealer named Frank Liberto. Liberto had a courier deliver $10,000 for Jowers to hold at his restaurant…Jowers said he was visited the day before by a man named Raul, who brought a rifle in a box. Douglass quotes Lavada Addison who said that Liberto told her that he “had Martin Luther King killed.” Jowers said that the meetings to plan the assassination happened at Jim’s Grill. The planners included undercover Memphis Police Department officer Marrell McCullough, who is African American. According to witness Coby Vernon Smith, McCullough had infiltrated a Memphis community organizing group, the Invaders, which was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Andrew Young, who witnessed the assassination, can be heard on tape identifying McCullough as the man kneeling beside King’s body on the balcony in a famous photograph. Later in the April 4, 1970 letter to his lawyer, George Jackson writes:
“We are so confused, so foolishly simple that we not only fail to distinguish what is generally right and what is wrong, but we also fail to appreciate what is good and not good for us in very personal matters concerning the Black colony and its liberation. The ominous government economic agency whose only clear motive is to further enslave, number, and spy on us, the Black agency subsidized by the government to infiltrate us and retard liberation, is accepted, and by some, even invited and welcome, while the Black Panther is avoided and hard pressed to find protection among the people.”
According to Douglass’ investigation, the Black agency subsidized in this case appears to be the Memphis based Invaders group, through which the larger government agency was able to send McCullough, and direct McCullough to direct King to be in the right position to be shot on April 4, 1968. By Jackson’s standard, McCullough is definitely one of those who are “so foolishly simple” that he failed to distinguish what is generally right and wrong. By participating in the killing of King, McCullough provides truth to Camae’s claim to King that he would die by hate.
A more interesting story I think would be a play exploring the motives and spiritual forces behind those who assassinated King himself. Because then audiences can be prepared an important way to fight those forces which seem to dominate this world. James Douglass interviewed an FBI agent Donald Wilson who said that “H.L. Hunt, an influential Dallas oil billionaire had been a friend of J. Edgar Hoover since the early 1950s. Both men hated Martin Luther King…Hoover argued that the only way to stop King would be to ‘completely silence’ him. After King’s murder, Hunt told Curington [his chief aide] that Hoover had won the argument” (486). George Jackson writes in Blood In My Eye that that “the ruling class in the U.S. is composed of one million men and their families—the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Mellons, Du Ponts, Hunts and Gettys, Fords and their minions and dependents. They use ivy league universities and elite law schools as private schools for their offspring and as training grounds for their corporate hirelings. They rule with iron precision through the military, the C.I.A., the F.B.I., private foundations and financial institutions. Their control of all the media of education and communication comprises an extremely effective system of thought control” (Jackson, 169-70). David Murphy in King’s 1999 Memphis trial said that his close friend J.D. Hill had confessed to him that he had been a member of an Army Sniper team in Memphis assigned to “an unknown target” on April 4th. A lot of what George Jackson has written, even while he was in prison, about the death of Martin Luther King, has panned out to be true. King’s prophetic anti-imperialist message was threatening the wealth expropriated by Hunt through white racist violence of indigenous people. Therefore, the powers that be, namely Hunt, wanted King dead and that’s what they got. The powers that be including Hunt also got an extraordinary narrative to cover up the truth behind the murder of King.
Hall’s play teaches us that Martin Luther King, Jr. took his death in a brave way that teaches all of us about the importance of humility regarding our own mortality. Hall’s play also exposes the white racist violence motivated by a hatred that wishes to continue white racist violence by killing Blacks who resist the white supremacist system and leaving alive only those who will happily work within it. The 1999 case in Memphis which rightfully concluded that King was killed by a government conspiracy was in effect carried out in a way that George Jackson accurately articulated no less than two years after King’s actual murder: “with iron precision through the military.” In an April 11, 1968 letter to his father George Jackson wrote about King:
“I never really disliked him as a man…It is just as a leader of Black thought that I disagreed with him. The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative. The symbol of the male here in North America has always been the gun, the knife, the club. Violence is extolled at every exchange: the TV, the motion pictures, the best-seller lists. The newspapers that sell best are those that carry the boldest, bloodiest headlines and most sports coverage…The Kings, Wilkinses, and Youngs exhort us to ‘put away your knives, put away your arms, and clothe yourselves in the breastplate of righteousness’ and ‘turn the other cheek to prove our capacity to endure, to love.’ Well, that is good for them perhaps but I most certainly need both sides of my head.”
In a later 12/28/69 letter to his brother Jonathan, Jackson rejects belief in “backward stuff about God…It is a labored, mindless attempt to explain away ignorance, a tool to keep people of low mentality and no means of production in line…a thing for imbeciles and only women and, of course, Negroes.” Hall’s play certainly rejects this. Hall’s play assumes a knowledge and respect for a God who has finite time for each of us to be on this planet. Both works make important analyses about the times in which we live. Hall’s play encourages to accept our own mortality whereas Jackson’s letters encourages to fight very hard to make that mortality meaningful for the rest of humanity. We cannot simply assume and condone white racist violence.
The play ends with King eventually getting his wish of seeing the Promised Land, up on the Mountaintop. In his April 3, 1968 sermon King says “I may not make it there with you.” But in Hall’s play, we as the audience go exactly there with him and it is Camae who tells us as a refrain at the end of each stanza that: “the baton passes on.” Hall imaginatively creates the Promised Land, this Mountaintop, “made of the dreams of men and women who have paid the ultimate price with their lives.” Hall addresses directly young people of color within the Negro revolution producing-Broadway audience when she has King say: “The children of Nile you must rise, as you can no longer walk weary through this world with willowed backs. Your time is now, I tell you NOW!!!” This resonates with Judge Joe Brown’s remarks made in 1998. Brown ruled on the case of the King murder in Memphis in the mid nineties. This is the same Judge Joe Brown with a television show, who concluded that the cartridge case that the state claims killed King, actually didn’t. Brown said: “The reason we must go forward and resolve this murder is for the children…to protect this new generation from this type of response by the system we must expose” (DiEugenio, ed., 470). Hall’s play aims to empower young people by showing the dear sacrifices, the dear personal costs one must give up in order to fearlessly speak truth to power. At the end of Hall’s play, King is at the mountaintop imploring young people to come by “passing the baton.” The baton represents continuing the anti-imperialist cause. We continue King’s message by speaking out against a nation that chooses spiritual death by choosing to spend more on military programs than on programs of social uplift. It also includes not paying homage to the ways in which this anti-imperialist message is watered down by the corporate powers that be that erect monuments. These monuments distract us from fulfilling King’s message of opposing military interventions at the cost of “starving children” in the United States. These corporations like GE, Bank of America, JP Morgan and others believe they could advance their imperial agenda and pay homage to King by erecting a monument all at the same time. A close examination of King’s life, Hall’s play and George Jackson’s letters tell us this is not true: we cannot avoid the terror that waits us while we continue an imperialist path. We cannot avoid it by erecting monuments without addressing the root cause that King died. We can only address this by ending all military occupations in foreign countries.
King fought for sanitation workers, but his life and death also allowed the place for many Negroes to enter public office and higher education. He was a martyr of the Negro revolution. Katori Hall tells us he was brave because he boldly, consciously decided to accept the end of the task that God called him to. He was choosing to trust God to in fact to have vengeance in God’s way, and not his own way. This is an important lesson. However this Negro revolution we’ve seen since his death has still fell short of Malcolm X’s Black revolution that would have opened the door for meaningful change that both worked towards. Since King’s death, the powers-that-be like Hunt have propagandized their mainstream narratives about Malcolm X and King, and have continued their path, in King’s prophetic words “to hell.” Each of us must decide which role we will play on this path. –RF.
The completion of this review was made possible by many. Originally, Cynthia McKinney for mentioning James DiEugenio to me on August 26th of this year. Kim Holder for mentioning the importance of George Jackson’s writings to me on October 14th of this year. And for Chelsea Nachman for the opportunity on October 22nd to see and read Katori Hall’s play.
James M. Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.
James DiEugenio and Lisa Peace, eds. The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK, and Malcolm X. Introduction by Judge Joe Brown. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003.
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Introduction by Jean Genet. New York: Bantam, 1970.
George L. Jackson, Blood in My Eye. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1990.