Something exciting is happening on Broadway this season.
You may be thinking it’s the fact that not one but three black women playwrights will have their shows staged successively in the same season. That’s only part of it. It’s more to do with The Mountaintop, a new work by a visionary young playwright starring a youthful-looking Angela Bassett, now 53, alongside Samuel L. Jackson, now 62, who with a prosthetic nose, a decent make-up job, a toupee and southern drawl actually passes for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when the lights dim and the curtains go up.
Katori Hall’s new play The Mountaintop, set in 1968 offers a fictional account of the night before Dr. King is assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The play is a meditation on Dr. King’s mortality but more generally a meditation on the future of the movement for civil rights, jobs, and human rights — a timely work of theater given our current state of affairs.
WATCH NBC NIGHTLY NEWS COVERAGE OF ‘THE MOUNTAINTOP’:
The Mountaintop is definitely not your standard narrative of Dr. King as a public figure or the black saint that much of civil rights lore makes him out to be. Instead, Ms. Hall focuses on the private King. The setting of a motel room is the perfect opportunity to see Dr. King differently — not the Nobel Peace Prize winner, but the man, if you can imagine King in such pedestrian terms.
Forget what you have read, heard or think you may know about Dr. King. In this play, Dr. King likes to smoke Pall Malls, let’s say humility isn’t his strong suit; his speech is most colorful occasionally using the n-word (much to the dismay of his daughter Bernice, the youngest of Dr. King’s four children.) And if that isn’t earthy enough: he also has a hole in his sock and apparently has smelly feet.
The role of Dr. King resonates especially with Samuel L. Jackson who, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also is a Morehouse man. During the late 1960s Jackson was a student-activist and, in a twist of fate Jackson would later become an usher at slain civil rights icon’s funeral.
Angela Bassett plays Camae (short for Carrie Mae), a housekeeper in her 20s who I suspect will likely take home a Tony award for her bada** performance, bringing a sense of play to her character. I can’t overstate how good it was to see Angela Bassett in rare form: not over-dramatic, or dare I say angry? Bassett didn’t miss a beat.
For a 53 year-old mother of 5-year-old twins she convinced me that she was every bit the 20-something Camae, who later stuns us as she transforms into the unlikeliest character in a twist of the plot. An hour-and-a-half ensues of rapid-firing dialogue and warm chemistry between Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. When Dr. King asks Camae about his physical appearance Camae deflates his ego:
Dr. King (asks Camae): Women do like men with wrinkles, don’t they?
Camae: I don’t. I likes ‘em young and wild. Like me.
Dr. King: Like you?
Camae: Yes, Preacher Kang. (Smiling at the memory)
Dr. King: I used to be young and wild myself.
Angela Bassett owns her character throughout the show without missing a beat. To be fair, the playwright had more creative space to create Camae as she isn’t beholden to history, as Dr. King’s character requires making his character at times predictably flat.
After about 15 minutes it becomes clear the playwright’s aim is multifold: she wants write about history as well as revise it. The character Camae represents a black feminist look at the civil rights movement that was smart, unexpected and ultimately edifying.
When asked what Camae would say if she was giving a speech the next day (which would become Dr. King’s famous “Mountaintop” speech) the Oscar-nominee beams in a symbolic moment where she speaks for all of the muted voices during the civil rights movement that were not heard because all the cameras were focused on Dr. King. Bassett borrows his blazer, stands on the bed and steals the scene.
In this moment, it becomes clear that Katori Hall is a student of history, fond of the likes of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and numerous other schools of thought that often are in tension with mainstream civil rights’ philosophy of nonviolence. In this scene it also becomes clear that the playwright is specifically critical of the civil rights movement as an all-boys-club despite the fact that there were many black women who were progressive thinkers and leaders in their own right who didn’t get to share the spotlight with Dr. King.
Just when you’ve thought Ms. Hall has given all that she’s got, she takes it up a notch with one of the most moving endings I’ve ever witnessed in theater.
Somewhere in the cosmos Dr. King must have floated in the theater standing and stood with the audience to applaud not only a brilliant new voice in American theater and in the black church tradition — the audience was moved to its feet. I haven’t calmed down since.