By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
It's a rare Broadway opening that earns its advance hype, but 'The Mountaintop' by Katori Hall exceeds all expectations: theatrically, emotionally and politically.
The play takes place on April 3, 1968 in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. That motel room is now a museum, a memorial, like the balcony box in Ford's Theatre where Lincoln was assassinated. April 3, 1968 was the night after Martin Luther King gave his famous last speech ("I've been to the mountaintop!") and the night before he was murdered. Katori Hall has imagined a 90 minute conversation between King (Samuel L. Jackson) and a beautiful chambermaid named Camae (Angela Bassett).
Their talk ranges from joking to flirtation to preaching to debate. They discuss civil rights and childhood memories; he phones his wife, Coretta, and has a goodnight chat with his daughter; they talk about Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X, about how to smoke cigarettes to look cool, about the hole in his sock, about race relations and poverty and God. They have a pillow fight. Camae is funny, rowdy, and intense. King is troubled and serious. Both are fearful. The lightning and thunder outside makes matters worse.
Rather than polemical agitprop or a reverential portrait, Hall – who just turned thirty, having already won the Olivier Award naming The Mountaintop Best New Play of 2010 in London—has created a feisty, human, interesting character study, made all the more intriguing by our knowing what is about to happen. When, at one point in the conversation, MLK says, "over my dead body," you could hear a throaty murmur run through the audience. Similarly, when he is in high rhetorical mode, you could hear various people agreeing with him: "mmhmm." So when King finally speaks his renowned crowd-rousing, "Can I get an Amen?" the audience gave it unbegrudgingly and unembarrassedly.
Two of Hollywood's most glamorous stars turn in thrilling and self-effacing performances; Jackson has captured King's rhythms and is wearing both a wig and a moustache to create a similarity of appearance. The gravitas of the very human man he is playing is unmistakable. Bassett, talking with a thick accent and doing motel-maid sexy rather than diva sexy, is sensational; every thought Camae thinks, every word she utters, has some physical accompaniment—a coy kneebend, an audacious shoulder shrug. Kenny Leon's direction seems both invisible and flawless.
The set is as authentic and realistic as it could be (designer David Gallo got permission to go into the Lorraine Motel to measure and photograph) until it vanishes. No spoilers—I leave you to gasp on your own, just as the shocking surreal revelation that turns the plot into something much larger than a fake docudrama will remain untold.
Hall's creation of Camae was a gift to her mother who, when she was fifteen in Memphis, missed King's last speech because her own mother was fearful of both the bomb threats and the violent storm. So, according to Hall's comments in a recent New Yorker article, she based the character on her mother, " her little sassy, mouthy self," and gave her a monologue near the play's end—an epic list punctuated by "The baton passes on"—that is a triple knockout: the writing and the presentation and Bassett's delivery.
If anybody was wondering whether these two movie stars had the stage chops for such a risky play, wonder no more.