Peter D. Kramer

Review: A powerful ‘Mountaintop’

In Reviews on October 14, 2011 at 6:00 am

“The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s powerful and compelling play imagining Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night, opened at Broadway’s Jacobs Theatre last night.

Directed by Kenny Leon (“Fences”), it stars Hollywood icons Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. That’s it — and that’s plenty.

For 94 minutes, the two denizens of the big screen fill David Gallo’s remarkable letterbox set — depicting the drab Room 306 at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968 — with true-to-life, honest-to-goodness, flesh-and-blood characters: one we know from history, the other an intriguing revelation.

It’s raining buckets outside the Lorraine when King arrives from delivering what would be his final speech, at a Memphis church, the speech that ended with the words: “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.  I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

We don’t hear that speech in “The Mountaintop.” What we get, instead, is a glimpse of the humanity of their speaker.

Jackson’s King is jittery, shaken by the crack of thunder, chain-smoking Pall Malls as he wrestles with his next speech — the one he’ll never deliver.

This is not the King of the federal holiday. He’s the man who complains that his wife forgot to pack his toothbrush again.

He’s not the man who addressed the throng at the Lincoln Memorial. He’s the man with the holes in his smelly socks.

Actually, he’s both.

If the portrayal isn’t reverent, it is certainly compelling.

It is also a bit disturbing to Bassett’s character, Camae, the first-day-on-the-job Lorraine Motel maid who brings King his room-service coffee despite the downpour. She has seen King before “on the TV down at the Woolworth’s.” And this is not the King — she calls him “Preacher Kannnng” — she expects.

Camae is all smiles at first, practically genuflecting in the presence of the Great Man. Before long, though, she lets down her guard and tells it like it is. Truth to power.

Bassett’s charm is unquenchable. She seems lit from within. If Jackson’s King is a bundle of nerves, Bassett’s character is a bundle of energy, even if at times her portrayal is overly broad, her accent flagging here and there.

Jackson is rock steady, playing King as weary but driven, hoarse but unbowed, a man who lives in fear, the same fear that proves to him he’s alive.

The chemistry between Jackson and Bassett is clear: in a funny scene where Camae teaches the preacher how to “smoke like the people” and King poses for her invisible camera; or when she gives the good doctor a few pointers on making a powerful speech.

An air of sexuality hangs over the proceedings. The air in the Jacobs Theater crackles with it whenever the two find themselves in a compromising position, which is more than once. You can hear the audience suck in their breath nervously at these moments, too, as if they don’t want to go down that road. We’re ready to see King human, but not that human.

Hall’s script also mines a disconnect between the rarefied air of King and his “siditty” (pretentious) inner circle and the men they came to Memphis to support. Folks in Memphis, including Camae, call them garbage men. King and his group call them sanitation workers.

Gallo’s set employs a low proscenium, giving the proceedings a claustrophic air. Add the raging storm — courtesy of Brian MacDevitt’s lights and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound — and the walls seem to be closing in on the King-Abernathy suite.

There are moments of nuance that delight: When Bassett removes the preacher’s jacket from her shoulders, she folds it gently and smells it as she lays it back on the bed.

But there is much more to Camae than meets the eye, as revealed in a plot twist you must see to appreciate. The story shifts abruptly and telescopes out, thanks to Gallo’s remarkable effects, in a stunning continuum that brings the story closer to us and puts Bassett’s powers on magnificent display.

We know how the story ends, at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, on the balcony just outside this very motel room. But the journey of “The Mountaintop” turns that tragic event into something far greater: a beginning, not an ending.

“The Mountaintop,” Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. 212-239-6200. Go to “The Mountaintop” website.

Photo by Joan Marcus: Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in “The Mountaintop” on Broadway.

  1. thanks Peter for the piece of critical reflection on the play! Forces me to re-explore King and his life!

  2. What a gift that this man was to all of us. Thank you for sharing, and congrads on making “Freshly Pressed.”

  3. i’d give anything to see this but i live in Canada! lol. thanks for the post.

  4. Nice review. I’ve been reading about this play and its playwright in The New Yorker. Wish I was in New York to see it!

  5. It sounds like a must see. I admire the man behind the speech. Thanks for the post and CONGRATS, on making Fresh Pressed!!!!

  6. Sounds great! I think that I am going to see it this weekend.

  7. Your review is beautifully written.

    I saw the play off off off Broadway, in the Luna theater in Monclair, New Jersey a few years ago. It was a powerful play. But that production did not have the female character. Was she added later on?


  8. Thanks for this review – am looking forward to seeing it in the UK, it sounds an interest exploration in character and the history of our time.

  9. I liked this content/ article. I would certainly recommend the same to others as well.visit:mumbaiflowerplaza dot com(send gifts and flowers to Mumbai).

  10. I haven’t seen this yet but your review inspired me to check it out. I respect Martin Luther King Jr. and everything he’s done with the people.

  11. I really can’t imagine two more appropriate (or amazing) actors for this play. Great review! 🙂

  12. Congratulations on being freshly pressed! This is a beautifully written review. I feel as though I was in that theater with you. I definitely need to see this play!

  13. well done for being wordpressed and thanks for the blog – empowering to see the ‘black’ presence on let me have more of such blogs blessed love

  14. Thanks so much for sharing this review….what a refreshing view of this great man! I hope that the show will eventually travel as I don’t know when I will get to NY but it looks like a wonderful show and of course Mr Jackson and Ms Bassett are always wonderful to watch as they work!


  15. Hopefully the play will come to Chicago or other metro areas to get an even wider audience. Great review.

  16. Great review! I saw the play in the preview phase with my sister Columbus Day weekend. It was a great play! The play shows you another side of a great man. It does have an awesome ending!

    You have to have an open mind to see Dr. King portrayed in this different way!

    One word of advise….my parents who are in their early 70’s would not
    enjoy this play. They marched on Washington and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. So they would cringe at some of the scenes.

  17. love to see it but I guess not in Australia:)

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