Of all of the intriguing plays coming to Broadway this season, “The Mountaintop” was the one I needed to see.
Perhaps it feels like a bit of an obligation, but in the best way; in the way we go to a religious service, but then leave delighted because the spirit is lifted and we’re reminded of what is right.
Theater can certainly have that effect, though not often.
Samuel L. Jackson as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is excellent. Angela Bassett as Camae, a chambermaid who spends the night before his assassination conversing with him, is nothing short of spectacular.
As magnificent as they are — and there is no “but” coming, they are simply magnificent — this is a play that needs to continue when these two stars move on to other projects.
It is necessary to pay tribute to King, and to honor him and to remember that he was a man — a man with flaws but with purpose. For those of us who hung on his words, who can never hear the “I Have a Dream” speech without getting goose bumps and have tried mightily to live up to the ideals he espoused, this is an important play.
Perhaps, though, it is even more important for those who don’t know enough about King, who don’t go out of their way to have friends of other races or fight injustice. Those people need to see the play.
On Sunday, Oct. 16, a couple of hours after the memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., Jackson took the stage, looking far more like the civil rights leader than one would expect of the lanky actor.
Jackson turns in a subdued performance that unfolds over the last night of King’s life. In his Broadway debut (Jackson had been an understudy early in his career but never got the chance to go on stage), Jackson has the courage to let silences fill space, to listen to his co-star.
On that stormy night, King had asked his closest ally, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to pick up a pack of Pall Malls for him. And so Camae and King are left alone. King had just given the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and had settled into Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
It was on that balcony where he was fatally shot. But the play doesn’t try to re-enact that. Rather, playwright Katori Hall imagines what King and a chambermaid – who has her own mission that cannot be revealed without spoiling an important plot point – would talk about.
King is working on his next sermon and playing with the phrase “America is going to hell.” He vows, “We are not going to stop. We are going to see to it that the sanitation workers get their due.”
Camae can cuss, smoke and drink with the best of them. Bassett has monologues that would challenge any lesser actress, and she owns this part from the moment she comes into the room, soaking wet and carrying a tray of coffee.
When she wraps herself in King’s jacket and stands on the bed to do a bit of sermonizing, Bassett pretty much nails a Tony nomination.
“Today, the white man is killing his negro brethren,” Camae says.
She advises him that he needs to be as radical as she, but he argues that he must continue to fight for justice peacefully.
“I wonder where they get it from,” King says quietly of the whites. “They hate so easily and we love too much. What do we have in common? We are scared.”
Jackson has the cadence of the reverend down, not just when he is sermonizing, which may be easier to pull off, but when he is talking.
Though we expect greatness from Jackson, in this the audience can feel something special, something deeply profound that imbues his performance. Jackson had marched with King and was an usher at his funeral.
In many circles King has transformed from being a man to being a saint. Yet in this play he remains a man, a very good man who notices a pretty chambermaid. He is a man who has reason to be paranoid, and a man who knows his time is limited. He just doesn’t know how limited.