The journey to "The Mountaintop" is a steep slope to the point where fact collides with fiction to form a work of art.
If Katori Hall's play had been made as a movie, the opening credits would have to include a caveat about being based on some truths, despite the fact that one of the two characters is named the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and there are lines derived from historical documents.
The playwright has walked boldly on the minefield of presenting a monumental figure in an imagined conversation on the eve of his death, when he has returned to his motel room after delivering his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. The civil rights leader and master orator is in Memphis, Tenn., in support of a sanitation workers' strike, and the play takes place in his motel room, where he is depicted sharing a cigarette and having a revealing encounter with a motel maid.
The actors playing the roles feel the weight of history and the obligation to Ms. Hall's "The Mountaintop," which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett on Broadway and which plays City Theatre during a time that spans Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month.
"I think Katori has a wild imagination just looking at the other stories she's told, and this one is [not] excluded," said Bianca LaVerne Jones, who plays the enigmatic hotel worker, Camae. "But I do feel there is a lot of responsibility. I think more mature people who come and see it will appreciate a lot of things that they recognize and remember, and I think the younger people will say, 'Oh, really?' But it would take a lot of research on their part to get to know him, because there's no telling if he would have dealt with this woman like this."
With director Peter Flynn, Ms. Jones and castmate Albert Jones (no relation) continue to research the era that produced the man and a martyr who promoted racial equality by peaceful means. As they dig ever deeper, new meanings and feelings emerge that may inform a previously rehearsed portion of the play.
As Mr. Flynn describes preparations, "It's definitely the most nonlinear journey and process" of his directing career. The onetime Broadway performer has been at City before, directing David Sedaris' "The Santaland Diaries" in 2008.
In this production, Martin Luther King is portrayed by Albert Jones, was at City for "The Brothers Size," also in '08. The actor, whose credits include "The Bourne Ultimatum," "American Gangster" and "Salt," also played Chief Burke on the TV series "The Following."
"The Mountaintop" is a play the actor read long ago and that he's been circling while busy on other projects, including guest spots in upcoming episodes of the Netflix series "House of Cards." The timing was right for City's production, and sitting in the theater lobby on a blistering cold January day, he searched for words to convey his personal journey up "The Mountaintop."
"It's so hard to describe because there's the historical figure, there's the character in the play, and trying to marry those two is difficult. As an actor you have to look at the character as it's written and figure out that journey. But we all walk into this play with an image of him in our mind and a relationship to him, so we have that background. We also have a job to do within this story. So they feed each other, certainly. I wrestle with that. It's day to day ... I was going to say, scene to scene. But it's like, line to line."
He continues, "There are so many levels to this play. It's infinitely more complex than I thought it was when I first read it -- infinitely."
The word crops up again, when Mr. Flynn notes, "The more I read it and the more research we do, wow, this is a big story, big world, big ideas, BIG. And so my expectation has been met as far as bringing process to something that can be explored infinitely."
Yet for all those big notions, the work that won the 2010 Olivier Award for best new play is about two people, one with a clean slate -- aside from what's on the page.
Ms. Jones has been fascinated by the role of Camae since seeing the play in workshop and on Broadway. The pair performs a verbal dance that includes political and spiritual volleys. She's openly flirtatious with a married man, and he opens up to her on many subjects.
"I personally would love to see Martin Luther King Jr., based on everything he did for minorities, to be thought of in a positive, awesome, Gandhi-Mandela like way vs. anything else," Ms. Jones admits. "But having said that, at the same time, he was a man who had foibles."
Of the trio that is taking this journey together, Ms. Jones realized all along that the play would take place during MLK Day and Black History Month, which were always noted in her home and, she says, "Most theaters try to do a black play at this time."
From her first workshop viewing of "The Mountaintop," the actress could see a lot of herself in Camae.
"We're following every beat and stage direction in the play, so there's a line that I have to march, and I do," said the actress, who is making her Pittsburgh debut. "As far as freedom, I'm able to use a lot of myself, so I'm not having to necessarily create a Southern voice. I am black female Southern, and that's the base of this woman. And then you put on socioeconomic status, what she did for a living, and then: Go."
"It's a very well-written play, so if you follow what's before you ... you don't have to muscle it," Albert Jones adds. "It's all there."