Sunday, October 30, 2011

In ‘The Mountaintop,’ a Failed Attempt at a Setdown

Samuel L. Jackson (the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Camae (Angela Bassett) have a meeting of the minds in "The Mountaintop." Photos by Joan Marcus.


some of us, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a touchstone, a change agent who helped the United States move toward the better.

In Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through 16 Jan., MLK (Samuel L. Jackson) is just a man.

KH has re-imagined Dr. King’s last night at the Lorraine Motel before his assassination on 4 April 1968 as an evening spent chatting, flirting and cadging Pall Malls from a chambermaid named Camae (Angela Bassett)

In KH’s fiction, Camae brings room-service coffee to MLK’s Room 306 in a rainstorm, and stays to discuss tactics of nonviolence, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, as well as whether the civil rights activist should shave his mustache.

Is there any excuse to deflate the legacy of MLK this way?

Chambermaid Camae (Angela Bassett) pays a call on a very special guest of the Lorraine Motel in "The Mountaintop."

It is no secret that the man had an eye for the ladies, nor that the FBI used wiretaps to try to entrap him. Despite its pacifist credo and inclusiveness, the Civil Rights Movement that MLK led was radical.

Of course, MLK’s contribution to American life is big enough to withstand its trivialization in “The Mountaintop.” However, if as SLJ has said, a generation of children doesn’t know the great man, “The Mountaintop” does not portray with him the dignity he deserves.

While the play seems to minimize MLK’s stature by emphasizing that he is a mere mortal, the production does pay close attention to some details. For instance, set designer David Gallo traveled to the Lorraine to meticulously recreate Room 306.

AB is convincing as a downhome, smart and opinionated young woman, boldly saying whatever pops into her head. As played by AB, Camae is comfortable even in the presence of a man she admires as much as the sassy maid looks up to “Preacher Kang.”

Martin Luther King (Samuel L. Jackson) had an interesting encounter in the Lorraine Motel the night before he was assassinated in "The Mountaintop."

SLJ has the tougher role in convincing audiences that he is genuinely MLK. Like the set designer, the actor has done his homework. In order to replicate the minister's conversational speech patterns as SLJ does so well in “The Mountaintop,” he listened to some of MLK's interviews. SLJ has the stature and chops to play any role convincingly and he acquits himself well in following KH’s lead in showing MLK as an ordinary man.

The truth lies, as it always does, somewhere between myth and history but the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not an ordinary man.

Visit http:// to learn more about “The Mountaintop.”

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