a theatre, film & pop culture review
What is most striking about The Mountaintop — a new play that re-imagines Martin Luther King Jr.’s final night before he was assassinated — is how little we get to know King. According to Hall, and to all of the press about the show (and there’s been a lot), that’s entirely the point — to get to know the man, not the legend.
But that King the man remains a mystery long after the curtain lowers is only one of many disappointments in this 90-minute two-hander by 30-year-old African American playwright Katori Hall. She’s the Hot New Playwright of the Moment: her collection of Memphis-set plays, echoing August Wilson’s cycle of Pittsburgh plays, was published last month, and while this one currently runs on Broadway, another, Hurt Village, preps for its off-Broadway bow at Signature Theatre. And, of course, her Mountaintop bested Tony-nominated Jerusalem for the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play.
Hall wrote The Mountaintop in 2007 when she was just 26, making few changes to the script since then — and, quite frankly, it shows. The play is set on April 3, 1968, when MLK retires to room 306 in the Memphis’s Lorraine Motel following his legendary “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered to a church congregation of more than 3,000. Hall’s attempts at “humanizing” the icon include showing him urinating (off-stage, of course), indulging in some liquor and cigarettes, flirting shamelessly with the maid and –SPOILER ALERT! (not really) — depicting him as a regular joe with super-smelly feet. Yep, lots of controversial/enlightening stuff here.
Sadly, it doesn’t get more insightful than that. When a young (ahem, Angela Bassett) and pretty chambermaid arrives to bring King his coffee, there’s a lot — and by “a lot” I mean the entire show — of silly, shallow banter between the two about the benefits of Pall Malls, jokes about the Beatles and even a pillow fight. Yes: a pillow fight. At the halfway mark, Hall springs a “twist” on us that isn’t all that surprising, and in fact, is fairly predictable. As requested by the show’s press rep, I won’t reveal what it is, but let’s just say it’s less inspired than it is sentimental, aiming to depict King’s great fear of his own mortality and desperate longing to “pass the baton on” — and also, to showcase a super-neat trick of David Gallo’s impeccably recreated motel room set.
But with all this Big Broadway Buzz, surely the much talked-about performances elevate the mediocre work, right? Eh, not exactly. Gorgeous as ever, 53-year-old Angela Bassett — the script calls for a twentysomething girl — plays chambermaid Camae. Meant to draw King out — at the play’s start, he’s very much inside his head, working on that last, great speech — Camae chats and flirts incorrigibly, mostly about nothing and rarely allowing “Preacher Kang” a moment to interject (much like Bassett’s forced performance, her Memphis twang is affected). With many theatre credits, including the Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Bassett has no excuse — and director Kenny Leon (Fences) even less for allowing it — for playing so broadly, shuffling and twitching across the stage as though performing in a minstrel show. When it’s obvious that an actor is working, hard, to “react” to everything said and done onstage, it’s a painful and exhaustingly frustrating experience. “If you don’t look at her while she’s talking, she’s not as bad,” my companion whispered helpfully to me about twenty minutes in.
Unfortunately, Bassett’s performance is such a train wreck that I couldn’t look away, nor could I focus on the much more natural and effective performance of Samuel L. Jackson as King. The 62-year-old is neither the right age (MLK was just 39 when he was killed), nor does he really resemble the legend, either in appearance or voice. But Jackson knows King in a way an age-appropriate actor never could — he participated in the marches, attended many of his speeches, even ushered at his funeral — and with solid theatre credits under his belt, albeit a bit rusty (his only Broadway credit is as understudy for the premiere of The Piano Lesson in 1990, and he originated other of Wilson’s roles at Yale Rep), he has a natural and easy way about him onstage.
When Jackson enters room 306, rain-soaked and coughing with cold, we watch with curiosity as goes through the motions of King unwinding after a long day. Unbuttoning his collar and removing his shoes, calling his wife and children to say goodnight, working on his next speech — practicing the tone and inflection of each line, each word. But instead of developing King from there, he remains largely stagnant, playing second banana to Camae. Jackson’s thoughtful, unshowy performance is swallowed whole by Bassett’s play for easy laughs, and it isn’t until the final scene, when he gives that famous Mountaintop speech, that we glimpse what could have been: Jackson as King, fighting to hold back his motions and his own mortality, as we know him and want to remember him, preaching, powerfully, about finding that Promised Land.
When it comes down to it, what does The Mountaintop actually offer? Do we need, or even want, to see King as a flawed man? Let me put it another way: Would you rather see a play about August Wilson or August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean? As fine as Samuel L. Jackson is, I’d rather see King speak and learn about the movement he dedicated his life to.