At “The Mountaintop” and Beyond
By Isa Goldberg / Chief Theater Critic
In London where “The Mountaintop” premiered last season, playwright Katori Hall was granted the Olivier Award, making her the first African American woman to receive England’s highest theatrical honor. Now arriving on the Great White Way, the production boasts the prominent marquis names: Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Fortunately, both actors deliver outstanding performances.
Jackson captures King well, both in reflective poses and in a style of down-to-earth humor. And Bassett puts on an entertaining show – over the top, full of energy and vigor.
Set on April 3rd 1968, the night before King’s assassination, “The Mountaintop” is an imaginative piece depicting the relationship that develops between King and Camae, the hotel maid who brings him coffee. That maid also becomes the vehicle through which the pastor speaks to God, pleading for his own destiny, and ultimately the destiny of mankind. As Americans we recall this is the occasion at which King spoke from the Mason Temple, telling his followers, “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.”
Here in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel where King and Ralph Abernathy often stayed in Memphis, the play opens with claps of thunder and lightening to which Jackson (King) responds like a frightened child. Bassett, on the other hand, drinks liquor from a flask and “cusses” as she puts it, “worser than a sailor with the clap.” To put it simply, Camae is outright bodacious and self-confidant. More importantly, her chambermaid is an outspoken feminist, and such an anachronistic character that one has to wonder how she exists in a story of such seemingly realistic dimensions. (A note distributed to members of the press before the show, asks us not to reveal the play’s plot twists.)
For the most part, the dialogue is exceedingly quotidian, as when the two discuss how bad King’s shoes smell, how much they like to smoke Pall Malls, and whether or not King should shave his moustache. Conversations about “doin’ the hoochie coochie” reference King’s dalliances.
The dailiness of their interaction humanizes King, allowing the playwright to achieve a simplicity that is humorous, entertaining and uplifting. Still, focusing on how bad King’s feet smell, however loosely that relates to the many marches he led, doesn’t get to the heart of this preacher, his crusade for nonviolence, or his righteous campaign against poverty, injustice and the war in Vietnam.
Better moments arrive when Camae standing on the hotel bed in King’s jacket and shoes, jumping up and down like a kid, delivers a speech “with a ‘King’ voice” in which she calls for a violent solution to the white man. King, even at this moment of his own disenchantment, compares her oratorical skills to Malcolm X, suggesting, in fact, that these are the thoughts of a “sissy.”
Hall’s drama is an openly polemical one. In the finale, highlighted by a multi-media display with documentary footage, King, “The Prince of Peace” speaks to the present and beyond. Indeed, the play has a theatrical effect. That it is more spectacle than poetry is one of its shortcomings.
“The Mountaintop” is performed at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street) Tuesday through Saturday evenings with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets call 212-239-6200, visit Telecharge.com or visit the box office.
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