Playing one of the 20th century’s greatest orators and activists is gruelling, but Dion Johnstone says the fatigue is actually helping him with the role.
Martin Luther King Jr. fought tirelessly for civil rights, but in The Mountaintop, a two-hander play that imagines his last night on Earth, he’s a man on the verge of breaking down.
“He’s not well; he’s hoarse and he’s not at his full capacity. His campaign is at a point where it could all slide and be washed away,” Johnstone tells the Straight before rehearsal for the Arts Club show.
The evening before the play takes place, there was a bomb threat on King’s flight to Memphis, and he’s recuperating in a hotel room after his final speech to striking African-American sanitation workers. It’s the night before what we know will be his death on the balcony right out Room 306’s door. “He’s at a point where the presence of death hangs in the air. How do you reconcile all that you’ve done when there’s so much left to be done? How do you let it go?
“It’s a big challenge, and it’s very exhausting, but that’s really helping me because he’s at a point where he just wants to sleep, put his feet up, but he has to do a big speech the next day, and he has to be able to say all the things he hasn’t been able to yet. Because he feels America now is going straight to hell and he’s finally able to say it.”
Needless to say, it’s a Martin Luther King vastly unlike the hero portrayed in history—a flawed, all-too-human being who’s wrestling with fate. Katori Hall’s play is set in 1968, on the eve of King’s assassination, right after his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, as he recuperates in a Memphis hotel room. Crystal Balint plays the sassy yet mysterious housekeeper-maid whom he ends up hanging out with all night.
At moments, King works on his speech, and Johnstone spent weeks studying his famous oratorical style and cadence for those parts. But perhaps more interesting are the scenes where the playwright imagines him flirting and joking around with the maid.
“She really disarms him and you really get to see the man behind the public image,” Johnstone says. “It’s very—I wouldn’t say street—but it’s a slang style. It’s letting the imagination go as much as I can. We don’t know what he did that night.”
Johnstone, who’s returned to Vancouver for the first time in 12 years to take on the iconic role, travels to some surprisingly dark places in the play. But as a man who’s made a name playing Othello and other tortured parts at the Stratford Festival over the past decade, Johnstone has learned how to separate himself from the journey on-stage.
“Once it [the character] is built, there is a way to do it so that I’ve got easy access to it, but I need to have separation between the two,” he says. “My partner, [fellow actor] Lisa Berry, is here with me as well and she’s new to Vancouver, and I go home and we go to the beach or we find a new place to eat.”
Having researched the role, Johnstone feels King’s words are timelier than ever, in light of the recent shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the refusal of a grand jury to indict a New York City police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Three months ago, Johnstone was working on Pericles at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and witnessed the massive riots in protest over the latter incident.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is amazing, the tension in the U.S. right now. I feel like if one more event like that happens things are going to explode,’ ” he says. “So this play, right now, is an opportunity to see what he was talking about and see it reflected in the world today.
“You look back and you say, ‘How far have we come?’ For every step forward, it still feels like we’re stepping backward.”
The Mountaintop is at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage until March 14.