In preparing to partake in the journey of Katori Hall’s new play, The Mountaintop, my expectations had led me to believe I’d be seeing a straightforward historical drama featuring a stately Samuel L. Jackson tackling the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. opposite Angela Bassett as a mysterious late entrant to his life.
From reading any of the press surrounding Hall’s play, winner of the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play for its premiere London production, one may have gathered that the play is set in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on the heels of his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, which also happens to have occurred on the eve of Reverend King’s assassination.
And so, with that portentous expectation looming over the proceedings, The Mountaintop begins intriguingly enough. A harried King takes shelter from a torrential downpour in what is a fairly tattered hotel room, shouting after his friend Abernathy in the hopes of getting his hands on a fresh pack of Pall Malls; smoking, throughout the play, provides immense distraction and comfort.
Soon thereafter, he calls down to room service for a cup of coffee, triggering the entrance of Camae, a mysterious maid at the hotel. It’s her first day on the job, and already she’s been entrusted with bringing Dr. King his coffee. At first, she’s hesitant to hang around, but King takes a liking to her. Are his advances flirtatious or the instinctive natterings of a lonely man? It’s unclear, but soon enough it’s apparent that the two have hit it off beyond the usual rapport of guest and hotel maid.
With a fairly naturalistic tone out of the starter gate, Ms. Hall hooks her audience by introducing a scenario we believe we can put our finger on – introducing the mysterious character of Camae and presenting us with snatches of her character’s history – only to pull the rug out from under us with a twist that comes midway through the play.
Without spoiling the play’s major turn, it’s safe to reveal that we find that Camae isn’t quite who she appears to be. Meanwhile there are omens of Dr. King’s impending doom – foreshadowed in particular during a discussion of how, as Camae puts it, “Civil rights’ll kill ya fo’ them Pall Malls will.”
Ms. Hall has a talent for naturalistic dialogue. Dr. King, as she portrays him, is presented neither as martyr nor as abased adulterer – he’s flesh-and-blood, possessing of a sense of humor but rooted in his particular moral beliefs. By contrast, Camae is free-thinking and sharp-tongued, tossing expletives about left and right, only some of which rankle Dr. King’s sensibilities.
As King, Samuel L. Jackson, is earthy and believable. Though he makes no attempt to mimic King’s speech patterns, he has a firm grasp on the sense that King is a larger-than-life celebrity who never sought fame. Angela Bassett is energetic as Camae, hitting all the expected emotions of the starstruck maid if, by the play’s end, her showier moments during the play’s second half begin to show the actress’s weaknesses.
The play’s primary strength, ultimately, is its ability to catch an audience off-guard. Ms. Hall’s is an approach to historical drama that hasn’t yet been overdone on Broadway – one that mixes fantastical and realistic elements in exciting, unexpected ways. During a particularly enlivened scene, Camae dons Dr. King’s suit jacket and jumps onto his hotel bed, exclaiming “Fuck the white man” in a heat of passion. It’s a thrilling moment as these mismatched characters swap roles – King playing the cool observer to her outcries.
Unfortunately, the play also suffers from its own ambition. The plot twist that breaks the play open and sets free its possibilities is also its main constraint. Though Ms. Bassett’s Camae is consistently fascinating to watch, there are also inconsistencies regarding the set-up of her character. Similarly, a hip hop-infused flash-forward through black history from King through to Obama, which received a thunderous response from the audience on the night I attended, felt more like a bone thrown to an expectant audience than an organic segment of the plot.
What begins as a compelling standoff between a martyr and the maid comes to develop complex hues but ultimately suffers from a lack of focus. Is the play ultimately a history lesson, a poetic expression of black power and civil rights accomplishments, or the naturalistic exploration of a hero? The Mountaintop, though an accomplished piece, strives to be a combination of the three but never latches onto any category enough to firmly assert its place amongst the canon of truly great plays.