The Mountaintop, by a talented young Memphis playwright named Katori Hall, closed last night after a three-month Broadway run. I had just seen one of its final New York performances. I’m very glad I slipped it into my schedule, even though it will not be one of the highlights of this trip. It had been suggested by friends-in-the-know that I might find it lacking. But Martin Luther King, warts and all, is a life-long idol of mine, both for his struggle and his dream. So I went ahead and got a ticket.
From the get-go, I have to say, my reaction went something like “How can a play that won the Olivier award in London for best new play, about King’s last night in the Lorraine Motel … possibly be this bad? Alone in his seedy room, in desperate need of coffee and cigarettes, cursing and disgusted with his own stinky feet, a very human Dr. King was very convincingly played by Samuel Jackson, in his Broadway debut. Okay, so far so good. He’s great. But then he is joined by Camae, a “maid,” badly overacted by the talented Angela Bassett. It looks like they’re in different plays, guided by different directors. But it turns out there’s a reason for the “over-acting,” which really isn’t that at all: She’s God’s angel, sent down to prepare Dr. King for his rendez-vous with Death the next day. Okay. But it gets worse: Before long, he is on the telephone with GOD “herself,” before she hangs up on him, irked by his angry ego. Let’s see, where can it go from here? Oh yes, the entire set goes sliding/flying up into the air, leaving our man standing alone in the universe to do a little preaching and establish the grounds for his immortal legacy.
To me it all came across as silly theatrical excess, with an off-putting forced sit-com quality that was completely inappropriate for its subject matter. I do think, however, that I was in the minority. There were huge Amens from the audience verbalizing their positive response to it all. And out of respect for the talents of all who made this very genuine effort, and maybe mostly out of respect for the memory of Dr. King himself, I stood and cheered with the rest of them. Perhaps they understood what I could not.