Cover Story - Being MLK

The Mountaintop and Lincoln raise questions about the risks and rewards of bringing history's heroes to life

If I could somehow meet Abraham Lincoln face-to-face, I wouldn't have the nerve to ask him if he was gay.

For one thing, the Great Emancipator would misunderstand the contemporary connotation of the word "gay." He'd probably respond that presiding over the United States during the devastating Civil War was a major bummer, but sure, he enjoyed moments of merriment.

I'd have to be more specific, and mention how such scholars as C.A. Tripp speculate that young Lincoln was a roommate, bedmate, and possibly more than friends with Joshua Speed and other contemporaries. Even if he was candid about it — and I'd expect no less from Honest Abe — I can't imagine looking at that craggy, Uncle Sam face and quizzing America's greatest president about his sex life. I'd probably stammer out a question about whether he was enjoying Our American Cousin before John Wilkes Booth cut the show short.

In the absence of such awkward posthumous interviews, the impulse to know more about history's major figures endures. The disciplines of history, biography, and much of narrative drama seek to reveal what makes great people tick. Historically informed art and entertainment give present-day people the chance to raise personal questions and consider possible answers. Would Angels in America author Tony Kushner, who scripted Steven Spielberg's new Lincoln film, explore his private life as a kind of Brokeback Abraham?

At best, biopics and historical dramas can seize the popular imagination and improve the odds for winning acting awards, with Oscar honorees ranging from Charles Laughton's Henry VIII to Ben Kingsley's Gandhi to Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher. Bad historical re-creations can explode in the artist's face, however. There's nothing more predictable than a one-man theatrical show that follows a famous person from cradle to grave, and nothing less convincing than bad make-up or accents in an ill-conceived biopic. Last year's J. Edgar offers a recent warning.

This week, True Colors Theatre Company's Martin Luther King Jr. play The Mountaintop opens in Atlanta simultaneously with the nationwide release of Spielberg's Lincoln. The film and play illustrate the challenges faced by artistic attempts to compress the life of a single person, particularly a shaper of history, into a couple of hours.

Should a dramatist attempt a greatest-hits kind of career-spanning story, or focus more narrowly on an incident or period that illuminates a personality? Accounts of historical role models like the Founding Fathers or human rights martyrs raise the stakes even further. Can you celebrate mighty deeds without creating a plaster saint, or acknowledge personal foibles without resorting to gossip and guesswork? The Mountaintop and Lincoln suggest that larger-than-life portrayals may not be as effective as the ones that are actual size.

Since August of 2011, a 30-foot likeness of Martin Luther King Jr. has towered over passers-by on the Washington, D.C., National Mall. As an indomitable force and resounding voice in the Civil Rights Movement, King unquestionably deserves such a monument, even though it seems like an incomplete portrait. Rendered in white granite, King maintains a stern expression and folded arms, as if the embodiment of the song lyric "We shall not be moved." The statue almost resembles one of the colossal effigies of Egyptian pharaohs, which seems ironic given King's command of Old Testament scripture and moral authority.

The King memorial also provides an example of the pitfalls of editing history. The "Stone of Hope" that provides the statue's base quotes King as saying, "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." In fact, that's a much-criticized paraphrase from King's sermon "The Drum Major Instinct," delivered in Atlanta in 1968: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter." The paraphrase sounds more like something King would declare at a job interview.

In September of 2011, one month after the opening of the memorial, Katori Hall's play The Mountaintop made its Broadway premiere, and provided a conveniently timed counterbalance. Instead of a granite giant, The Mountaintop portrays King as a weary, flesh-and-blood human with his defenses down. Hall draws on the viewers' knowledge of history to offer an audience with King on the eve of his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Over about 90 minutes of real time in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, King talks to — and flirts with — a young African-American maid named Camae shortly after delivering a speech that seemed to presage his own death: "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

True Colors Theatre artistic director Kenny Leon directed Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as Camae on Broadway. For The Mountaintop's premiere in King's hometown, Jasmine Guy casts Danny Johnson and Demetria McKinney in the production. As a New York resident, Johnson saw Jackson's performance in The Mountaintop but never expected that he'd step into MLK's shoes, which the play suggests have obtrusive odor issues.

Johnson, 50, was raised in one of the few middle-class African-American families in Lafayette, Ind. As a tavern-keeper, Johnson's father was one of the area's few black businessmen, and Johnson grew up keenly aware of the influence King and the Civil Rights Movement had on his life. "King was a hero in my family," he recalls. "I grew up in one of those families where you had those church fans that made their way into your house. My mother had this big buffet, and the Martin Luther King fan was always there. I have faint memories of his death and watching his funeral on television."

Johnson feels a strong sense of responsibility to get King right, particularly because he's playing a world-renowned figure in his birthplace. "It's different when you're playing someone who actually lived and worked and talked in the town you're playing him," says Johnson, whose currently staying in the Old Fourth Ward, in walking distance from King's former haunts. "King is an icon globally, and here in Atlanta, it's a whole other level, really almost deity status. People will come to the play who may have been members of his church or members of his family. So there's definitely a sense of responsibility."

As a two-person, one-room play, The Mountaintop doesn't call for Johnson to emulate King as an orator, with the cadences and ringing tones of the pulpit. Johnson finds that imitating a character's most famous speeches or recordings can be a trap. "I want to capture the tone and timbre of the voice, but one of the easiest things to do is butcher his accent or make everything sound like the drum major sermon," says Johnson. "It's hard to play a guy that everybody knows and not tip your hat to the way everyone knows he speaks."

The Mountaintop shows King engage in conversational code-switching, or tailoring his speech pattern to his audience. "When the play opens, and through the course of it, we're seeing King at his least guarded and most vulnerable," says Johnson. "He's much more conversational in the Southern, black American style of the time period. He speaks, knowing who he's with, at a level that's relatable for her. He doesn't necessarily use those oratorical flourishes we know from speeches and interviews."

Taller, less round-faced, and 10 years older than King in 1968, Johnson feels relief that theater doesn't require an actor have as much of a physical resemblance to a historical subject as film. "We're not making a movie, so it's not like every minute they see King, the audience has to think, 'That's MLK,'" he says. "Theater is more illuminating, and comes with a suspension of disbelief. We're signing a contract with the audience. They're going to pretend, and I'm going to pretend."

King's candid conversation with Camae as they share Pall Malls touches on topics from nonviolent resistance to King's relationship with his wife (and contains an unexpected twist). Johnson credits Hall for finding a fresh angle on King that acknowledges some of his personal flaws. "I think that strengthens our understanding of him as a person," he says. "All of that stuff is more interesting to me as a consumer of art. People can look at King and say, 'By the time King was 27 or 28 years old, he had all these accomplishments in his life. He became this nationally known figure in the United States, who put us on a better path to realize the things the Constitution set forth. How did he do that? He must be some kind of higher person, to reach a height I could never reach.'"

The actor thinks that a more humanized King serves as a more effective role model for people who might follow his example. In The Mountaintop, he says, "You see a guy who's not afraid to have a drink, who smokes a cigarette when he has anxiety, who has smelly feet like everyone else. You can see him and think, 'I guess he's not that different from me. Maybe I can make choices to make things better for those around me, too."

As a crusader for freedom and a brilliant communicator, Martin Luther King Jr. qualifies as Abraham Lincoln's spiritual heir. Lincoln expunged America's original sin of institutional slavery, four score and seven years after the founding of the Union. One hundred years later, King demanded America make good on its promise of African-American enfranchisement. Spielberg and Kushner put the 16th president's political fight to end slavery at the heart of Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

Many biopics offer historical pageants that follow famous people from their childhood to their deathbeds. Lincoln doesn't match the real-time focus of The Mountaintop, but nevertheless limits its chronicle to the year 1865 and the last four months of Lincoln's life.

The major events of Lincoln's presidency, from the death throes of the Civil War to his stormy marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), inform and provide a backdrop to the fight to ratify the 13th Amendment, and give the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation the force of law. Based partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, Kushner's dense script suggests a 19th-century version of "The West Wing," or the musical 1776 without the songs. And no, it does not involve Lincoln having gay relationships, or killing vampires for that matter.

A Time magazine story about Lincoln called Day-Lewis "the greatest living actor," but one of his performance choices counteracts today's perception of the president. Lincoln's powerful rhetoric and patriarchal features seem to call for the kind of baritone Day-Lewis used as There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview or Gang of New York's Bill the Butcher. Instead, in keeping with historical accounts, his Lincoln speaks in an unexpectedly high, reedy register. Uncharitable online commentators described the voice as "whiny" and "goatlike" after the debut of the first trailer.

In an audience Q&A following a Manhattan screening in October, Day-Lewis explained the combination of historical research and creative supposition behind the voice. "You begin with the places that would have made a huge difference in his life. Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, and the counties that he came from. There are no contemporary recordings — lucky for me — so no one can say positively that it's not what he sounded like," Day-Lewis said. "There are also a number of contemporary accounts about the quality of his voice. I'm inclined to think that having had a voice that was intended to be in the higher register, tended to be placed more in the head tones, helped him reach a greater number of people in his public speaking. Stump speaking was such a huge part of their lives; they spoke sometimes for two hours or more without notes. And beyond that, I suppose it really was just an act of imagination."

If initially off-putting, the voice effectively fits Lincoln's savvy take on his folksy public persona in the film. The film's Lincoln clearly relishes playing the part of a country lawyer, despite his position as Commander-in-Chief during the nation's bloodiest conflict. Using his signature stovepipe hat as a public prop and an arsenal of homespun anecdotes to disarm hostile audiences, Lincoln comes across as a masterful custodian of his image. In one scene, young union soldiers quote passages of the Gettysburg Address back to him like star-struck fanboys, illustrating Lincoln's immense celebrity at the time.

In contrast with the savage willfulness of his signature roles, Day-Lewis invests his good-hearted Lincoln with a fascinating combination of moral urgency and political savvy. When he justifies to his cabinet the need to pass the 13th Amendment before both the war and the current congressional term come to an end, he demonstrates an extraordinary command of the competing legal issues, war-time necessities, and public opinion. This Lincoln isn't just a brilliant orator and moral exemplar determined to free the slaves, but a cunning politician who knows how to count votes, twist arms, and generally get the sausage made in Washington, D.C. It's a feat comparable to running through raindrops without getting wet.

Lincoln illustrates the architecture of the 13th Amendment as a team effort, with players ranging from blood-and-thunder abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to a trio of Washington rascals (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) gathering the necessary votes by dubious means. Spielberg doesn't always come across as the ideal director for this story, and sets a stately pace when it should be snappy. But he's still able to build suspense around big events, even though we already know their outcomes. The film makes a compelling case that the 13th Amendment was Lincoln's greatest accomplishment, even if his goals of American equality took another 100 years to be achieved.

Biographical art doesn't take place in a vacuum, and Obama-era politics inevitably inform how we view Lincoln and The Mountaintop. Lincoln offers a striking parallel to the partisanship and race-inflected politics of contemporary Washington, despite some drastic changes in the Democratic and Republican parties.

Johnson hopes that The Mountaintop's imaginary notion of the hotel conversation will point audiences toward the future as well as the past: "I think this is going to illuminate the fullness of the guy and everything he's overcome — and the sense that we're not done here. I think the play will hopefully spark in people the questions, 'What can I do? Where is my moment?'"

Both works share the ethos of award-winning playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan, whose scripts for Frost/Nixon, The Queen, and other takes on contemporary history zero in on specific incidents and relationships, like Queen Elizabeth's response to the death of Princess Diana, as a means of capturing important individuals during social tipping points. In the best dramatizations, personal details make history seem like a living thing, as opposed to a list of facts.

Ultimately, such indispensable figures as Lincoln and King will loom larger in history than any narrative re-creation, no matter how powerful or relevant it may be. Even the best-intentioned actors, playwrights, and directors may find themselves echoing the words of the Gettysburg Address: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

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