Oct 18, 2011
Tired and wired in his motel room after giving his famous ”I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech on what would turn out to be the last night of his life, the revered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Samuel L. Jackson) asks for coffee delivered to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The date is April 3, 1968. The weather is terrible, thundering and pouring like weeping heavens. The coffee arrives delivered by Camae (Angela Bassett), a most unusual chambermaid. She stays to talk, to flirt, to joke and share smokes and a nip or two from her flask. The night takes on new meaning. And so, by the end, does The Mountaintop, a bold, uninterrupted 90-minute swing-for-the-fences play by 30-year-old Memphis-born Katori Hall that simultaneously presents King as a real, flawed man — and as a great marker on the road to American equality.
Hall’s depiction of King is daring in its vulnerability, and the ideas she explores, through King’s conversation with Camae, are provocative, mature, sometimes even dark. At the same time, as directed by Fences‘ Kenny Leon, the production has the look, feel, and intentionally rousing call-and-response energy of a traveling Tyler Perry stage show — a warm, earthy entertainment approach (featuring two Big Famous Movie Stars!) to deeply serious thoughts. This is a provocative contradiction, something that, I suspect, will inevitably be read differently by a white or black theatergoer.
Which is also, of course, the point. Bassett introduces her Camae with the hands-ups and mmm-hmmms and knee-slaps and sho’ ’nuffs of a pop culture Everyblackmaid — gestures that come to mean something different by The Mountaintop‘s stirring conclusion. Jackson, who at 62 is considerably older than the 39-year-old man he portrays, gives his King a glint of steel and sexual power that works in tandem with his visitor’s little provocations — Camae knows she’s a looker.
We, the black and white theatergoers, nod along with this almost familiar but somehow mysterious man and woman. We’re lulled into laughing when they cuss and tussle. And then, toward the end, when we feel like we know everything, the playwright digs deeper and The Mountaintop somehow becomes more majestic, inviting each of us in the audience to join the ascent as we see fit. A-