The Mountaintop – Review

Posted: January 19, 2012 by chuckspears in Art, Broadway, Fiction, social issues
Tags: , , , , , ,

At the end of the performance I saw for the Broadway production of Katori Hill’s The Mountaintop, at the Bernard A. Jacobs Theater, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, a moderator asked the audience to think of one word to sum up our feelings about the show. The one word that best describes The Mountaintop for me is, provocative. The Mountaintop is a fictional account of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s night in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee the night before his assassination on April 4, 1968.

At the start of the play, Jackson plays a wearied Dr. King returning to his room after delivering a speech on behalf of the Sanitation workers in Tennessee. He’s contemplating his next speech titled, Why America Is Going To Hell. He reads what little he’s prepared of the speech so far and then calls home to Corretta and his children, before he dials however, he checks the rotary phone for government installed phone taps and bugging devices. Not far into the writing of this speech he calls room service to order a cup of coffee. Soon after, we are introduced to Camae a feisty motel employee, played by Bassett, that comes to deliver the coffee to Dr. King. From there we are delighted to a flirtatious and lively interplay between the two renowned actors.

Humor has a big part in this production, most of it delivered by Bassett’s character Camae, short for Carrie Mae, which seems a clever play on words based on what we later discover her true role is. She is the counterpoint to King’s ideals in that she believes that the police and white southerners aren’t responding to the non-violent approach. When asked what she would do, she offers, “How about a march for an ass whooping” as an alternative to passive resistance. She goes on to give an impassioned speech standing on one of the twin beds in the motel room wearing Dr. King’s shoes and suit jacket. She ends the speech by saying the solution is to, “fuck the white man,” Which the audience responds to with howling laughter. But she continues that we shouldn’t kill him with weapons, but with our minds by building our own communities and infrastructure. Killing the need for “The MAN” by doing for us.

King has quite a few memorable lines as well. There are several pot shots at Jesse Jackson when Camae suggests that King steps down from his mission to pass the baton to one of his associates in the movement. But King’s most evident function in Mountaintop is that of the seducer. He makes eyes at Camae and makes somewhat suggestive statements throughout the encounter. He asks if she has any cigarettes and says she smokes like a man to get a rise out of her. Camae plays along and offers her own playful innuendo but King is clearly the more aggressive pursuer. He asks for kisses and seduces her with sly words and gestures. Even after she reveals her true nature, which I’ll say is a little unexpected based on her sometimes profane language and boisterous demeanor. They have a playful pillow fight that begins with them standing by a desk and ends with them lying in bed. But there’s always some incident or revelation that snaps things back to the subject of Dr. King’s mission as well as his mortality.

I’d say it was well crafted, informative and fun for the most part, considering the subject matter. There were some questionable decisions in the play to me, one of which was to have the cast smoke actual cigarettes on the stage and to glamorize the act of smoking, saying it was sexy. It was odd that the chosen brand was Pall Mall on top of that, but the choice may have been a testament to the playwright’s research of Dr. King.

As I type this there are only six performances left for this production of The Mountaintop. It was filmed for the Lincoln Center Film Archives so if you miss the opportunity to catch this on stage there’s still a way to see this phenomenal cast in this powerful piece.

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