The Mountaintop, at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****
When he was governor of New York, I once heard Mario Cuomo read a story to students at an elementary school. It was about two animals, one very large and the other very small. The moral: it's not your size that matters but what's in your head and in your heart.
Cuomo then asked the children, who were probably in the first or second grade, whether Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been big men. They answered, in unison, "Noooooo!" Clearly, they got the lesson - or they had been well prepped by their teachers.
If any of those now adults happen to see The Mountaintop, one thing might puzzle them - Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is over 6 feet tall. However they would certainly appreciate the message in Katori Hall's play, which draws a compelling portrait of the civil-rights leader not as a larger-than-life figure but as a man.
The Mountaintop takes the form of an imagined conversation between King and a maid in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the final night of his life. Hall's writing is conversational, graceful and honest. She's tackling a tough subject - the private thoughts of a revered figure - and she does it in a way that does not diminish him or his legacy.
This isn't a biography, so you won't hear about the Montgomery bus boycott or any of the other defining events in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans. But you will hear King talk on the phone to his wife and children, his anguish at growing violence, his concern about the plight of the poor and his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Initially I had mixed feelings about Jackson, mostly due to his age. He's 62 and King was 39 when he was assassinated. He's bigger than King and he doesn't sound like him. (Although come to think of it, how often have we heard King's regular speaking voice?)
Well Jackson won me over, and I only saw the third preview. I never felt like I was seeing an icon but always a flesh-and-blood human being. His King is flirtatious and playful, tender when talking about his family. (I met Coretta Scott King briefly when I was in high school, in 1976, and I could just imagine her on the other end of the phone.)
But he's also facing criticism for speaking out against the war. He knows the FBI is following his every move. He's weary and worried about who would carry on his work should something happen to him. You can tell from his voice the toll that all of this has taken.
As Camae, the maid who brings King a cup of coffee and stays to talk, Angela Bassett is a powerhouse. Hall is from Memphis and the character is loosely based on her mother, who was forbidden from attending King's final, prophetic Mountaintop speech and always regretted it.
Bassett's performance is wonderfully layered. Sometimes actors I know from the movies don't always translate well to the theatre but she has a commanding presence onstage. She's clearly at home in both places.
She's deferential at first, a bit shy and even motherly. But she's also sexy, spunky, a bit teasing and unafraid to speak her mind. There's a thrilling, and hilarious, scene when she stands on the bed and gives the sermon that she thinks King should deliver.
Without giving anything away, when Camae's purpose is revealed it's a startling moment that could be maudlin but Bassett handles it with tremendous care.
The play consists of Jackson and Bassett talking in a motel room for nearly two hours and you'd think that might not hold your attention but they work off of each other well, their interaction seems so natural. They're absolutely riveting.
There are some beautiful passages, like when King says that fear is his best friend and the reason he gets up in the morning: "I know that if I'm still afraid, then I am still alive." Even though we know it ends sadly, there are surprising flashes of humor. And Kenny Leon's direction has paced this work so well. It never lags.
At first, it was jarring to see King in such a private setting. But at the same time, it was fascinating and really drew me in. Although I've read books about the civil-rights movement and a biography of King, this was different. It was so personal.
I have to mention that there is some swearing, but Hall doesn't overdo it by any means. What made me more uneasy was King's use of a racial epithet. I had a chance to ask her about it afterward and she told me she'd spoken with his advisers and it was accurate. And it's not said in a mean-spirited way. She's done her homework and I respect her for that.
It's always tricky to put words in the mouth of a real person but what I took away from The Mountaintop was a portrait of a man who, even in private, remains true to his core values.
He may be tired and smoke and cuss occasionally and express doubt and flirt with a pretty woman but he's clearly devoted to his wife and children, committed to nonviolence and equality. When Camae makes a homophobic remark he immediately rebukes her, saying in effect that we are all God's children. (And lest you think this is an example of revisionist history, it's not.)
And no matter how weary, he's not giving up. He talks about planning a poor people's campaign. (King had returned to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. An earlier rally, in late March, ended in disaster with looting and a young man killed by the police.)
Martin Luther King is arguably the most important American of the second half of the 20th century. And yet in our popular imagination, he's too often reduced to a 30-second clip of the "I have a dream" speech that's played every year on the federal holiday in January commemorating his birth.
I think Hall's point is that by turning King into a saintly figure we're doing him and ourselves a disservice. We're reducing him to a caricature - no matter now noble. And we're absolving ourselves of any responsibility to make our communities better. After all, what could we mere mortals do by comparison?
The truth is, King was not super human, simply a man who wanted to be a minister of a small church but for whom God had other plans. Like him, we all have the obligation - and the ability - to be a drum major for justice.
The Mountaintop includes a terrific projection design by David Gallo, who also re-created King's room at the Lorraine Motel. I sat there stunned. It was an absorbing look at how far we've come since his death and how far we have to go.