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The Mountaintop

Katori Hall's play about an encounter between Martin Luther King, Jr. and a hotel chambermaid on the night before his death boasts award-worthy performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett
in The Mountaintop
(© Joan Marcus)
Having earned the prestigious Olivier Award, the advance gospel from London on Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, now at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, was that this play about Martin Luther King's encounter with a Memphis chambermaid the night before his assassination is an inspired piece of work.

But by the conclusion of the 95-minute piece -- featuring award-worthy performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett under Kenny Leon's admittedly inspired direction -- we realize what we've witnessed is basically inspired hokum. Not that, as the saying goes, there's anything wrong with that.

A Memphis native, Hall has been obsessed with what happened on April 4, 1968 since she learned that her mother, Carrie Mae, missed King's "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, which was delivered in her hometown the day before he died. Only when Hall thought to put her mother in the civil-rights leader's hotel room on the night preceding the fatal shooting did she see how she could comment cogently on what eventually transpired.

Shortly after the play begins, King (Jackson) -- intently worrying about the next speech he'll give on America's failing its citizens -- is interrupted by Camae (Bassett), a young maid at the Lorraine Hotel who has been sent to bring him coffee. At first, she's cowed by the revered figure, but the cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking, foul-mouthed Camae soon begins matching King thrust for parry.

Faced with such challenging candor, King begins to relax, and it isn't long before he's putting the moves on Camae. Well aware of her good looks and not as innocent as she initially appears, she handles the pass adeptly, while Hall, perhaps for uncalled-for titillating purposes, leaves open its possible successful completion. But King's well-known womanizing isn't the playwright's primary concern.

What Hall does means to demonstrate, however, is vague at the outset. The tone she wants seems to be comic, suggesting to audiences that, while we know King will die the next day, he might have had an amusing final night with a feisty follower. And while many of these exchanges click, they begin to pall by the time the work is two-thirds through. Fortunately, that's when Hall gives the plot a play-rescuing twist (one that the producers asked not to be revealed and that no responsible reviewers should divulge).

One can say that as the remainder of the play unfolds, King becomes more introspective, reviewing both his accomplishments and the future of his campaigns. Hall also seizes the opportunity she's given herself to add an explosive denouement, including one more crowd-rousing King oration. It's all a bit of a conjurer's trick.

As Camae, who reflexively hitches her right leg whenever she says something that tickles her, the scene-stealing Bassett is as vivacious as a cheerleader. She hits her peak atop a bed while delivering a King-like sermon that ends with a plea to "kill the white man" (a moment that leads many audience members to merrily guffaw). Surprisingly, Jackson has the less showy role, but throughout his thoughtful impersonation, he's never truly what could be called unshowy.