×

The Mountaintop

Katori Hall's imaginative two-hander is a soul-stirring drama. Factor in the double dose of charisma from certifiable stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and this show has wings.

With:
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - Samuel L. Jackson
Camae - Angela Bassett

Unlike those warts-and-all biodramas that humiliate the celebrated figures they profess to humanize, Katori Hall’s imaginative two-hander “The Mountaintop” does, indeed, burnish the legend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Set in Memphis on the eve of his assassination, this soul-stirring drama finds King confiding his doubts, fears and morbid premonitions to a sassy motel maid — a deceptively trite situation that Hall transforms into an emotionally powerful and theatrically stunning moment of truth. Factor in the double dose of charisma from certifiable stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and this show has wings.

Play comes to town after bowing in a small London theater and transferring to the West End, where it won the 2010 Olivier Award for best play. But the show is almost at its midpoint before it reveals what prompted all that overseas adulation.

Under Kenny Leon’s helming, the creative staff has taken a severely naturalistic approach to the factual aspect of the material, which is grounded in the shabby motel room (a sad hole in the wall, in David Gallo’s design) where King (Jackson) spent the night of April 3, 1968.

The night is dark, there’s a storm outside (nice sound work from Dan Moses Schreier), and threats of violence are keeping King in his room. But the motel doesn’t offer much in the way of creature comforts, and he’s tired, hungry and desperate for a cigarette.

In Jackson’s physically imposing and emotionally honest perf, the great man is also immensely weary — and a bit lonely — after delivering his inspiring “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a rapt congregation at Mason Temple. So when a gorgeous maid named Camae (Bassett, whose range extends from adorable to breathtaking) shows up with a cup of coffee on a tray (and cigarettes and a flask of liquor on her person), he turns on the charm to get her to stay a while.

It’s Camae’s first night on the job and she’s aiming to please, and the flirtatious relationship they strike up is just the sort of thing that a playwright might seize on to “humanize” a legendary figure like King. Indeed, Camae reassures the preacher, “You just a man,” when she catches him eyeing her up. “If I was you, I’d be starin’ at me, too,” she tells him with appealing candor.

Jackson does absolutely the right thing by King, playing all the flaws that make him human without robbing him of his basic dignity. Bassett’s comedic skills come into play when Camae teases him about those flaws — the vanity about his looks, the swaggering pride in his own oratory, the holes in his socks. She also gets behind Camae when the sassy maid taunts King with the memory of the virtuous Malcolm X, who didn’t, she says, “Drank. Smoke. Cuss. Or cheat. On. His Wife.”

Fun as it is, this light banter goes on too long, dragging out what appears to be a famous man’s rather awkward seduction of an irresistible maid. But when Hall is finally ready to drop her cover and declare her true intentions, she does so in a big, big way.

With a magisterial wave of her hand and an abrupt shift in theatrical style, the scribe lets it be known that this is no ordinary night. This night King walks into his own Garden of Gethsemane and falls on his knees to face his terror and despair, to confess his fears and doubts about his mission, and to pray for the strength to accept his martyrdom. But throughout King’s long night of existential darkness, one young playwright has seen to it that he is not alone.

Popular on Variety

The Mountaintop

Bernard B. Jacobs Theater; 1,085 seats; $131.50 top

Production: A presentation of Jean Doumanian; Sonia Friedman Prods., Ambassador Theater Group, Raise the Roof 7, Ted Snowdon, Alhadeff Prods./Lauren Doll, B Square, 4 Prods./Broadway Across America, Jackie Barlia Florin/Cooper Federman, Ronnie Planalp/Moellenberg Taylor and Marla Rubin Prods./Blumenthal Performing Arts, in association with Scott Delman, of a play in one act by Katori Hall. Directed by Kenny Leon.

Creative: Set and projections, David Gallo; costumes, Constanza Romero; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; original music, Branford Marsalis; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; hair and wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; production stage manager, Jimmie Lee Smith. Opened Oct. 13, 2011. Reviewed Oct. 8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - Samuel L. Jackson
Camae - Angela Bassett

More Legit

  • Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    One constant of David Byrne’s long and prolific career is his ability to grow a seemingly simple idea into something brilliant, whether it’s the melody of “Road to Nowhere” or the concept of the “Stop Making Sense” tour some 36 years ago, where the premise of bringing out nine musicians, one at a time per [...]

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content