In Katori Hall’s reverential and raucous play “The Mountaintop,” we are privy to a celebration of the man Martin Luther King Jr. as much as we are reminded of his achievements. The time is 1968 when the idea of securing civil rights for all American citizens was just beginning and to a large extent was still a dream. This play, under Kenny Leon’s accommodating direction, purports to bring us reasonably and presumably close to the nature of the man, his passions, fears, doubts, and his imperfections. Whether or not the playwright’s assertions or speculations about King in this instance are entirely accurate, they are affectionate in their consideration and don’t discredit his legacy.
Would that this remarkable and inspiring preacher/social activist have had an inkling that a black man would be president of the United States only 40 years after his assassination, he might have. . . Well, let’s not speculate but rather revisit him on the night before that fateful day in Memphis where he spent the night in a hotel talking (as amusingly speculated by the playwright) with a black maid. At this point all you need to know is that Samuel L. Jackson is magnificent as King, a great man with many questions and that Angela Bassett is astonishing and a delight as Camae, a maid with plenty of answers.
As King’s accomplishments have been corroborated and chronicled, as have his zeal, energy, and commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, particularly desegregation, Hall’s play allows us to see him in his unguarded moments in a dumpy hotel room (as designed with a late-in-the-play surprise by David Gallo) after spending the day speaking and marching in support of sanitation workers. But exactly who is this very attractive, outspoken, and somewhat outlandish woman who arrives with coffee, despite the fact that he has just previously been told by the front desk that there is no room service?
Just as you might expect, he is amused as much by her inquisitiveness and reluctance to leave his room as by her sexy, coy, and sassy personality. It is the tartly flavored tete-a-tete during the first half of the play that provides the audience with just enough of King’s back-story to serve as a prelude to what the playwright really has in store for us. This is not a great or especially profound play about a man who lived in fear of assassination as well as constantly being shadowed by the FBI. A casual remark by the maid is as likely to get him searching the room for bugging devices as it is likely to suspect that she may not be who she claims to be.
Although we are not oblivious to reports of the married King’s indiscretions, the fact that he is undoubtedly a charismatic, attractive, red-blooded male and that this testy maid is also quite a provocative eyeful gives the play its pulse. Their instant rapport, however, is the key that unlocks the often comic interplay between the two, made more so by a funny running gag with cigarets that I won’t spoil.
While King’s serious side is not ignored, particularly as he rehearses a dynamic speech on “Why America is going straight to hell,” the real charm of the play asserts itself when Camae, whose agenda as well as her intelligence is allowed to surface, decides she can orate more convincingly than King. She demonstrates her ability while standing atop the double bed, but also using vernacular embellishments that make him blush.
The astute playgoer will undoubtedly sense that something is going on in this room beyond the obvious when King tries to reach his wife, Coretta, and his children on the phone, but also gets to speak with God who turns out to be a black woman with very little patience for him. The funny thing is just as our patience with the increasingly glib chatter between King and Camae starts to sound forced and unfocused, the play moves them into a kind of transcendent reality, a realm of consciousness in which they are seen as the spokespersons of a people and of a movement that is destined to be a part of an ever evolving and ever progressive America. ***
“The Mountaintop,” Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street. $131.50 to $76.50. 212-239-6200.