To tackle the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Broadway you need serious acting chops, a stellar script and a fresh angle to tell a tragic but inspiring story. Written by Katori Hall, The Mountaintop is a huge risk, but one that pays off during an exciting and diverse time on Broadway. The Great White Way has gotten some color in 2011.
The Mountaintop opens tonight on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Directed by Kenny Leon (Fences, Raisin in the Sun) and starring Oscar nominees Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, Mountaintop is a fictionalized account of the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Birmingham, Alabama. Taking place in a room at the Lorraine Motel, King is forced to face his epic past and inevitable destiny.
Any show that focuses on Dr. King is a challenge — one would think every angle has been squeezed dry out of the civil rights icon. Is there a new way any of us can see Dr. King? Well, Hall and Leon proved there is. Instead of witnessing Saint King, the audience gets to know King as the man: cussing, smoking, drinking and having a sense of humor. Edgy without being disrespectful and as if it was humanly possible, the production offers a deeper appreciation for Dr. King.
A 62-year-old Samuel L. Jackson has the lofty task of embodying a 39-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With smart theatrical choices, he gave Dr. King a vulnerable layer of humanity. In addition, gone is the loud and brassy Samuel L. Jackson that we’ve seen in films. In The Mountaintop he is restrained, using subtlety as his strength.
The only other character is Angela Bassett as Camay, a maid at the Lorraine Motel. As we all know, this is a role Bassett took over after Halle Berry dropped out. Bassett attacked this role with fire. Gone is the poised, regal, upstanding roles we’ve all grown to love in her films. Here, she is sassy, country, hollering and with a shocking secret. In addition, Bassett’s final monologue is one to remember. She built the audience up to an emotional arc, garnering cheers from a clearly riveted crowd.
The second half takes a questionable turn and will leave many to debate hours after leaving the theater, which is what the live stage should do — spark dialogue. Moreover, the beauty of The Mountaintop is not limited to the stage. It was an honor to be in the presence of two great figures in Hollywood who are uniquely continuing the legacy of the great Dr. King.
Undoubtedly, some will be offended by a ballsy portrayal of King and the writer’s use of religion. If you are deeply conservative and seeking an all-American apple pie show, Mountaintop is not the production for you. However, if you are a lover of creativity and don’t mind having some buttons pushed, you might just reach the theatrical mountaintop.
The Mountaintop opens tonight at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City.