Written by Katori Hall
Directed by Kenny Leon
Political figures are more often than not shrouded in myth, mystery, and idealism, and Martin Luther King Jr. is no exception. Katori Hall's The Mountaintop
, set on April 3rd 1968, the eve of his assassination, seeks to bring the icon off the pedestal and into sharper focus. While based in history, the work is entirely fictional—an imaginative look into the pressures, fears, and flaws of a man who would soon face his own mortality.
Set in the Lorraine Motel's room 306, King (Samuel L. Jackson) retires for the night after giving his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. The Mountaintop
's version of King isn't saintly. He uses the N-word, smokes Paul Malls, curses and womanizes—evident here from his flirtatious interaction with Camae (Angela Bassett), the humorous and mysterious woman who delivers his room service.
At King's insistence, and due to his loneliness and justifiable paranoia, Camae ends up staying most of the night. Hall's ensuing psychological portrait gives the audience insight into King's personal life. The pair talks about everything from The Beatles to Malcolm X to King's insecurities about whether or not his work will really spur change, culminating in a rather mystical revelation by one of them.
As in any two-character play, the strength of the actors is paramount. Both are Hollywood staples with Oscar nominations under their belts, but neither is a stranger to theater, having first worked together in the late 80s while performing in the Negro Ensemble Company
Bassett gives a nuanced performance as Camae, warm, funny, but also compassionate and tough. She serves as a sounding board for the preacher, never letting him get away with much, but also empathizing with the struggles inherent to his lofty position in the civil rights movement. Jackson, who doesn't resemble King at all, wears a prosthetic nose and wig to look the part. He has the physicality of King down to the details, but his performance is less dynamic than Bassett's—though he still manages to show insight into his character's emotional life.
Katori Hall, who first premiered The Mountaintop
in London's West End and subsequently won the Olivier Award for best play in 2010
, has garnered some criticism due to the perceived effect it may have on King's legacy. However, as it coincides with the dedication
of the MLK memorial
in Washington D.C., this production asks us to thoughtfully revisit an important historical moment while raising new questions about social progress.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)