‘Mountaintop’ depicts King in human terms

Sekou Laidlow portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in “The Mountaintop” at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. — SUBMITTED PHOTO

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the man, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader merge in Katori Hall’s award-winning drama “The Mountaintop,” receiving its Philadelphia premiere at Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) through Feb. 17 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

Set in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the play imagines the events that might have taken place the night before the assassination of the civil rights leader. After delivering his magnificent “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, an exhausted and defeated King retires to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel where he encounters a mysterious and spirited stranger as an epic storm rages outside.

Sekou Laidlow, making his PTC debut, plays King, which presents both a challenge and an honor for the Baltimore-born actor.

“It is quite a challenge to be playing this man, who is obviously larger than life,” Laidlow admits. “The weight of playing someone like him is very intimidating. The real challenge is to let go of what my perception of what people coming to see this play expect to see, and giving homage to him in terms of trying to tell his story. I put my whole heart and soul into the role so that the audience can experience this journey as told by this wonderful playwright.”

“The Mountaintop” received its world premiere in London, winning the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play. It then premiered on Broadway in 2011, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

As for Laidlow, a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School, he acknowledges that he attempts to bring all his training as an actor to deliver his best as Dr. King. But it’s not always easy.

“In fact, there’s a joke among actors that if you want to hear them complain, just give them a role,:” he says. “In doing this role, I am definitely not complaining, but simply trying to do the best work I can while hoping to give audiences something that will inspire them to do more with their own lives.”

Over the years, Laidlow has appeared in such regional theater productions as “Of Mice and Men” at Pioneer Theater Company, “Runaway Home” at Studio Theater, “Stonewall Country” at Theatre at Lime Kiln and others. His television credits include “Law and Order” and “The Wire,” as well as his performance in the short film “Pop Foul” which earned him the Best Performance for a Lead Actor at the Columbia University Film Festival.

“But after all that, I realized that I probably would never get a chance to be in plays off-Broadway, and most especially on Broadway, if I didn’t further my education, which is why, even after years of performing, I went back to school to attend Juilliard,” he says.

“Even with a pretty good amount of credits to my name, I realized that most people who got the kinds of jobs I wanted went to a conservatory. The people in charge just didn’t hire people without that kind of training, so that was my incentive to go to Juilliard.”

And whether one can afford a school like Juilliard or not, Laidlow says one of the keys to making it in this business is definitely education.

He says, “You have to educate yourself the best way you can and always know what’s going on. You also have to cultivate relationships with people in the business, and be genuine.” He explains that’s what he’s done and continues to do. “And today, the best thing about what I do is the ability to tell stories that have some significant content that change me, broaden me, and hopefully, like this play I’m doing now, leave an impact on others.”

For times and ticket information, call (215) 985-0420.

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