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The Mountaintop Imagines King’s Last Night

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The Mountaintop is playwright Katori Hall’s conjuring of the night before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The action takes place on April 3, 1968, in a room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

We see King exhausted and feeling ill, alone in the room awaiting his friend Ralph Abernathy. He longs for the Pall Mall cigarettes Abernathy will bring when he returns. He relieves himself, calls down for a cup of coffee, and begins to unwind. He’s just given one of the greatest speeches of all time, but he’s discouraged by the low turnout of the audience, and just barely fighting off a case of severe depression.

Samuel L. Jackson is almost unrecognizable as the legendary icon we’ve come to know from the history books. His King is very much a man with human frailties, albeit a handsome and charming one. He lies to his wife on the phone, telling her he’s drinking the tea she’s prescribed, not coffee. And he yearns for the family he’s had to nearly abandon in his quest to achieve his goals. This week, it’s the battle for the sanitation workers; next week, it will be something else. The fight for Civil Rights is never ending.

King’s coffee is brought by Camae, an attractive young woman who shields herself from the pouring rain by using a newspaper she’s meant to be delivering. This soaked paper is the first clue that Camae is not the obedient maid she’s expected to be. As played by Angela Bassett, she’s a foul mouthed, giggling groupie, who can hardly contain her excitement at being in the same room with the great man. She provides King with the cigarettes he needs, and also uses her beauty to flirt with him. Camae becomes more confident and more assertive as the evening progresses, even donning King’s jacket to make a fiery speech while standing on his bed.

Camae’s real identity is revealed along with a message about King’s fate. The last few moments of this one act, hour and forty minutes play are magical. The rest of the production is more mundane, though the original music by Branford Marsalis greatly aids director Kenny Leon’s efforts to add drama to dialogue which tends to drag down the pace of the production.

There’s plenty of thunder and lightning outside the room where the action takes place, but not enough excitement inside. The subject matter is important, the play is not. Having said this, it’s only fair to note that The Mountaintop won the Britain’s 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play.

Photos by Joan Marcus

The Mountaintop
Through January 15, 2012
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street
212-239-6200

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.

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