May 14, 2014 | 3:22 p.m.
By Suzanne Yonker, Creative Content Specialist
“I’ve been to the mountaintop. 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.” Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words during his famed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968. Recently, as part of the Guthrie Theater’s Community Dialogue Series, local actors visited Bethel to read and discuss selections from The Mountaintop, a two-person drama portraying King’s conversation with a hotel maid in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination.
The interactions between the two characters range from irreverent to philosophical. And it soon becomes clear that the maid has a higher mission than providing King with clean towels—that of preparing him for his demise. As the drama progresses, it reveals playwright Katori Hall’s version of the man behind the myth by uncovering his strengths as well as fears and failures. And it reminds us that God can use us despite our weaknesses, says L. Ripley Smith, professor of media communication. “To the extent that theatre as an art form is intended to cause us to vicariously identify with passions, struggles, ideologies, and personal investments of love, time, and wealth,” Smith explains, “it encourages us to reconsider our own struggles and pursue our own personal as well as 'righteous' corporate dreams in spite of those struggles.”
But The Mountaintop goes beyond bringing the famous preacher down to size. It also serves as a record of our progress in civil rights and reconciliation and reminds us of our continual role in moving justice forward—a core value at Bethel. “I want students to see our ongoing need to take stock of our personal responsibility for social, ethnic, and racial inequalities, as well as address ongoing structural and institutional inequalities,” Smith says.
At the end, the play encourages us to pass the baton of pursuing equality for all to the next generation and the next, says Macalester College Associate Professor of Theatre Harry Waters, who led the discussion. It’s about being aware of institutional racism that still exists—not just in 1968 Memphis, but in today’s Twin Cities, and working to break that pattern. “Awareness is the key,” he says. “Breaking [the pattern] starts with something small, like teaching others something you know how to do, beginning a friendship, or hiring a person of color when you’re on a hiring committee someday.”
This event marked the fourth time the Guthrie-sponsored Community Dialogue Series has come to Bethel. It was provided as an offering of the Bethel University Library’s Primetime Series.