THE MOUNTAINTOP opens questions about Martin Luther King, Jr.
What was Martin Luther King, Jr. like as a person? With all the death threats that King received, what was his last night alive like? What did he believe was going to be his ultimate role in the Black rights movement?
Katori Hall, a playwright and performer from Memphis, Tennessee, who wrote the award winning play HURT VILLAGE, attempts to answer these questions in THE MOUNTAINTOP, which is now getting its Broadway showing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. It is a thought provoking, but not an epic script.
The play takes place on April 3, 1968. It is a “what/if” reimagining of the night before King’s assassination. King returns to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after delivering his soon to become famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech.
He’s exhausted, alone, out of cigarettes, and a storm rages outside. He calls for room service. A young lady (Camae) appears with coffee. Since King was hinted to be a womanizer, Camae’s presence opens supposition of what might come. He flirts with her, bums several Pall Malls, drinks some of her whiskey and, affectionately uses the n-word.
As the short one-act unfolds, she becomes the instrument by which King, at least in Hall’s vision, is forced to confront his destiny and his legacy.
Hall presents a real King, a chain smoker, the possessor of smelly feet who wears a sock with a hole in the toe, and, who, in spite of his bravado, has fears. This is a King who carries the burden of the civil rights movement, is weary from being away from his family and his church for so long, and is getting a cold. She gives us a different figure than the powerful man who has become the bigger than life legend.
Director Kenny Leon does a good job of keeping the show well-paced and the characters accessible. He isn’t going for epic here, he’s going for understanding a real man, with real life problems. He also, with the author’s help, presents an unknown presence who gives us cause to pause and ponder whether Camae is real or a figment of the imagination.
Samuel L. Jackson gives us King-lite. Only at the end, when King is preaching, do we see the bigger than life person. Jackson wisely sticks to a speaking tone and pronunciation pattern that doesn’t attempt to mimic King’s preaching.
Angela Bassett is effective as a cross between a typical television smart aleck African American character and a sassy street-wise lady. Interestingly, when the Broadway opening was announced, Halle Berry was confirmed as Camae. It is interesting to conjecture how the role would have been interpreted with Berry in the role.
Capsule judgement: THE MOUTAINTOP is not an easy play to watch, especially since we know what is going to happen the next day on the balcony outside that room. That is not to say the play is depressing. It’s not. It is filled with vivid imagery, humor and some preposterous ideas. It is well worth seeing.