Theatre Review: “The Mountaintop” @ Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 11/22/11

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, is the Broadway transfer of a show that was enormously successful in Britain, winning that country’s Olivier award for “Best New Play” in 2010. American critics have been far more harsh in their treatment of Hall’s fictionalized account of Martin Luther King Jr’s final night before his assassination, and although I can see where they are coming from, I would disagree.

In order to buy into what Hall is selling, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind when you walk in the theatre.

1. The play isn’t shedding new light on the Civil rights movement.

2. The play isn’t really telling us anything that hasn’t been said about MLK. In fact, the depiction of the human side of Dr. King, as a man who chain smokes, drinks, womanizes, and has really smelly feet, might be a problem for American audiences, who are more inclined to feel a sense of ownership over King’s legacy than the Brits.

3. The play isn’t really making any big statements about present day race relations.

In essence, “The Mountaintop” is like MLK “fan fiction”, and if you can follow Hall on a giant leap of faith through a plot twist that requires a certain suspension of disbelief, you will enjoy the show. I won’t giveaway the plot twist on this blog, although the info is certainly out there if you google search it (or you can tweet @djdan1079).

The two person show is set in a run down Memphis Motel, where King (a more subtle than expected Samuel L. Jackson) is in town to help settle a sanitation worker strike, and is in the midst of preparing a sermon on why America “is going to hell”. While waiting for a colleague to bring back a pack of Pall Mall’s, King meets a hotel maid named Camae (Angela Bassett). She arrives at his room to deliver coffee, but it’s obvious that King is looking for reasons to keep her there. The two seem to find an instant chemistry and the next 40 minutes shows the two in a flirty, sometimes foul-mouthed exchange, on a variety of topics, including family, race relations, the proper way to smoke, violent versus nonviolent protests, Malcom X, Jesse Jackson, and more. The banter is more suited to a sitcom than to a MLK play, but it works largely due to Bassett’s impeccable comic timing.

And that’s when we get to the plot twist.

It is at that moment, an hour into this one-act show, that the audience might feel like they have hopped aboard the “WTF Express”. The show takes a turn for the metaphysical, and it starts to get weird. Dr. King and Camae are engaged in a pillow fight straight out of the slumber party scene in Grease. We even learn that God is actually a black woman with spotty cell phone coverage. But if you can follow Ms Hall’s journey through a choppy 15 minutes, the payoff on the backend is breathtaking. David Gallo’s motel room set literally blows apart before your eyes into a film projection documenting the last 50 years of black American history. Bassett narrates with a spectacular slam poetry monologue set to original music by Branford Marsalis. It is a sequence that you would more expect to see in a $14 million dollar Broadway musical, but it doesn’t feel at all out-of-place in this production. After it’s completion, Jackson delivers one final, stirring monologue that brings the show to a satisfying close.

As MLK, Jackson brings a natural energy to the character, giving us more of a sense of the “man” rather than the “preacher”. However, he is completely overshadowed by Ms. Bassett, who gives as fine of a performance as I’ve ever seen on any stage in my lifetime. It’s almost hard to believe that this role was originally set to be played by Halle Berry. While she might have been a bigger box office name, I can’t imagine that she would have brought the same ferocity to the role.

The Mountaintop might not be a perfect play, but it’s a show that needs to be seen. The engagement has been extended through late January, with talk of possibly extending again with a new cast thereafter.

Grade: A-


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