Charles Weldon had a band in 1968, and on the evening of April 4 he had a gig in New York.
When he learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, he canceled the gig. He couldn’t work. It felt like his world had been shattered, and hope lost.
On the other side of the country, Harvy Blanks was dressing for football practice at the University of Washington when a teammate told him, “Martin Luther King is dead. Someone killed him.”
“I remember all the black athletes just freezing and all the white athletes saying, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ and then they went about their business,” Blanks said.
Someone told him, “They got your boy.”
“I realized how disconnected they were. I could mourn Kennedy, but they couldn’t mourn Martin,” the actor said.
Beginning this week, Blanks stars as Martin Luther King in the Portland Stage Company production of “The Mountaintop,” a reimagining of the night before King was assassinated on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis.
Written by the American playwright Katori Hall, “The Mountaintop” is a play about mortality and portrays King’s human side, exposing him as a chain-smoker and flirt.
It’s a two-person cast, with Kim Staunton playing the hotel maid Camae. Weldon directs.
The play is set in the hotel room where King spent his final night and where he is holed up working on a speech. He orders late-night coffee, and gets much more than he expected.
Camae brings him coffee, and engages him in a conversation that forces King to reconcile his life. They debate social issues such as racism, poverty and civil rights.
As Staunton read the script, she was struck by how timely it felt. The issues Camae raises with King are issues she believes that our society continues to struggle with.
“Nothing has changed.”
Fear and a lack of cultural understanding were the roots of racial discord in the 1960s, and both remain the roots of racial discord today, she said. Races don’t understand and often don’t relate to each other, because they tend to live in insular worlds.
On the other hand, everything has changed. We have a black president. Change is happening in our society in real and fundamental ways, but as a culture we can’t seem to move past the fear, she said.
Hall has shared that she wrote the play to reflect how far we’ve come as a country, and how far we still have to go.
“(King) achieves such great things, but he is grounded in a very human existence,” Hall has said. “My hope is the audience will be inspired by his greatness, but that they’ll also realize he is for regular people. I want the audience to come out saying, ‘I can be a King, too. We can all be Kings.’ ”
By portraying King as a human being who struggles with the same issues that many people struggle with, the playwright humanizes King in ways that should make it easier for people to relate to him.
At least, that’s what Weldon hopes.
“I would like for all white America to see this play, because I think they would come away with a whole other thought of African Americans and of black life,” he said. That’s especially true in a place like Maine, which has relatively few people of color, he added.
Mainers, Weldon said, “are mostly good people. But they don’t see a lot of us. If you don’t see a lot of us, you don’t know how to have a conversation with us and be comfortable. I’d like to have that conversation.”
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
WHEN: Final preview at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and continues through Nov. 22.
TICKETS & INFO: $32 to $37; 207-774-0465 or portlandstage.org