'The Last Year' Nearly Reaches the Promised Land

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The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta is a very long title for a very long one-act show. It is brilliant. And it is, now and then, a mess. It is just what we should expect from history—which is never as tidy as we hope it’ll be.

Something about the title’s Joycean length makes you suspect there’s more here than meets the eye: The opening action finds Rodney Gardiner, as a stunning Dr. King, offering a thundering and well redacted version of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which was delivered at Riverside Church in April of 1967. As the Waterwell ensemble, including director Tom Ridgely, sees it, this was the moment King began an inexorable march toward death in Memphis in April 1968. You can taste mordant inevitability in the air.

Whether real or extrapolated, Waterwell uses many of the factual events that occurred in between to challenge us, to emotionally devastate us in ways that extend beyond the struggle for civil rights or for an end to a deeply unpopular war. Scenes trade on political vaudeville, like those between Arian Moayed’s idiotic President Johnson and Kevin Townley’s femme J. Edgar Hoover—like the extended 1960s variety show in which King’s message of peace and hope is uproariously upended by Hanna Cheek’s intoxicated emcee.

Except for Gardiner, whose mastery of King’s rising and cascading cadences is riveting, the rest of the ensemble plays multiple roles. Cheek often appears as droopy-dog-faced Joan Didion, either interviewing Ridgely’s hot-radical Huey P. Newton (“any unarmed people are slaves…”) or sitting in an Atlanta airport beside Gardiner’s rueful King. In the show’s most memorable moment, deadpan Didion asks, “Would you want to just walk away from the whole thing if you could?” King’s reply—“If I could, yes. But I can’t. This is my role and I have to play it to the end”—is a shocker: Was the civil rights leader ever less than a blaring trumpet for the cause? Yes or no, the moment tenderly humanizes him.
And that’s one case of something else going on. Despite the show’s frisson of historical accuracy, the ensemble’s lusty sense of satire is another. Late in the show, after being diverted by Hoover singing in a red dress, you realize that white actors have been playing white and black characters: U.S. senators, Ralph Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, Eldridge Cleaver. When Gardiner delivers bits of King’s last major speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” with its prophetic allusion to “sick white brothers” in Memphis, we realize this, in its own way, is a tiny sliver of the fabled promised land envisioned by the martyred Dr. King.

There’s more to be said about Lauren Cregor’s first-rate rock score than I currently have space for. The trimming of multiple choruses would surely trim the show’s running time, and the actors must stop garbling lyrics into their microphones. Certain songs could probably go—at least those that halt or confuse some of the action, and ditto bits of the quizzical choreography. Indeed, there are moments when Waterwell seems adrift—like they’re still working out steps or their viewpoint. Even when theatrically scattered, though, the piece is flush with aspiration; it floats on hope. “I haven’t lost hope because when you lose hope you die,” King tells Didion. In another death-ridden era, let’s offer a thankful prayer for Waterwell’s sense of life. 

Through Aug. 11. Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. (at 7th Ave.), 212-239-6200; $25.

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