Playwright Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop has been a work in progress since premiering in London at Theatre503 in 2010. The Mountaintop has seen several iterations since Hall developed the play as part of her work with the Lark Playwright’s Workshop. That blessing however — coupled with feedback and the input of other playwrights — is also the play’s shortcoming. It’s more like an academic exercise in playwriting absent the introspection of those who either lived through or were actively involved in The Movement. The human element through interviews and focus groups breathe life into words depicted by any educational entity. But the A-list actors who have signed on provide both depth and sure-footedness to transforms Hall’s play into a must-see for those who enjoy exceptional acting via live theater.
Angela Bassett, is at her best as Camae, the cussin’-drinkin’-smokin’ antagonist (sometimes protagonist) to Samuel L. Jackson’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Camae is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional personality and Bassett delivers on every front. There are five maybe six aspects of Camae. Armed with an MFA from Yale School of Drama, Bassett’s training shines in The Mountaintop. She eases between personalities and characters displaying ability and range. For Bassett, this is her acting magnum opus. From quick word plays, soliloquies, and some moaning and groaning here and there, Bassett endears an everyday filthy-mouthed maid at a small town motel into a character of deeper, even divine, insight. Camae’s role for any actor has to be met with emotional control, balance to an iconic historical figure, and bashfulness with an undertone of uber-sexuality waiting to explode. By far, Camae makes Bassett’s Anna Mae Bullock look like a walk in the park.
Samuel L. Jackson’s Dr. King, on the other hand, is a one-dimensional already-knew-that unstretching role. Though Jackson is spot-on with line delivery, he fails to take King into a place the audience hadn’t already seen. He is convincing as King, but it’s the King everyone knows and is comfortable with. King had philandering ways; nothing new there. King could handily shift gears between preacher of the gospel and champion of the people; both requiring a voice pleasing to the ear and a command of — no pun intended — the King’s English. Honestly speaking, did Dr. King keep that southern drawl with him at all times? And, did he really refer to Coretta as “Corrie”? Jackson takes on King’s role effortlessly and convincingly. The man who was troubled by the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam early in 1968, hammered with hatred from the power structure in the National Baptist Convention (coincidentally headquartered in Memphis at the time) and the de-valuation of United States currency only two weeks before his death, did not come across in Jackson’s portrayal. Those 1968 conditions were very troubling. King grew tired and worn as nonviolent direct action waned. A fatigued King is what we find in Jackson.
Then again, this is probably the King director Kenny Leon desired: a safe one. Without tarnishing a legacy or inviting legalese from King’s heirs, Leon creates a fast-paced, impeccably-timed production. Staging is blemish-free. Similar to August Wilson’s plays Leon has directed for Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and True Colors Theatre, he has working props doused with the perfect timing of spiritual occurrences. Bradford Marsalis’ scoring is faint until closing moments in the production and, not perhaps purposefully, competes with Camae’s diatribe. The visual and auditory stimulation take quite a turn in the play’s closing moments. The social messaging of “Passing the Baton” seems a little clichéish, especially with printed T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with the logo at the rear of the theatre (this ain’t Madea marketing, y’all). To Leon’s credit, the set design is fairly similar to Room 306. A visit to the National Civil Right Museum and the transformed Lorraine Motel is warranted after seeing The Mountaintop. Absorbing King’s last night on earth is well worth seeing the play as well as visiting Memphis, which may ultimately help us feel as though the baton has been passed. -dr. mike. f. weaver