Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York
Review by Philip Fisher
The Mountaintop is a play about dreams and self-belief that has managed to prove its own underlying thesis. When Memphis-based playwright, Katori Hall persuaded Theatre 503 over a pub in Battersea to stage her play, she must have been over the moon. That was only the start of a story that is too unlikely for fiction.
After succeeding there, it earned a respectable run at the Trafalgar Studios and an Olivier for Best New Play before transferring over the Atlantic in an all-new production starring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Broadway debutant Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett.
American director Kenny Leon has worked wonders with a play that comes over much better in the country where it is set. This owes much to tremendous performances from his two stars but also a sharper production, music from the iconic Branford Marsalis and a receptive New York Black community.
To provide the appropriate degree of intimacy, set and projection designer David Gallo has reduced the typically large Broadway stage to a letterbox, comprising a motel room in Memphis.
Here, we meet Jackson portraying the Rev Martin Luther King on the eve of what he hopes will be the speech of a lifetime.
His character is drawn out thanks to the arrival of a wet behind the ears maid, Camae played by Miss Bassett. The actress uses highly demonstrative body language throughout and this comes off both in showing a young woman awed by a celebrity and later as Camae is seen in a new light.
The preacher is shown to be an ordinary man with feet of clay to complement his silver tongue. For a fair proportion of the 90 minutes, it seems as if this might be an offbeat love story as the older man seems smitten with his visitor.
However, there is more to The Mountaintop than that, with elements of biography and political / sociological comment in the first half prior to a devastating and, one has to say, unlikely revelation.
This moves the play into the realm of fantasy, which can be hard to swallow. Now, we discover that this is the eve of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Further, he gets a direct line to God and discovers that She (sic) will soon be asking him to become a house guest in Heaven.
Before that, backed by a wall of video, Angela Bassett gets to deliver a marvellous speech connecting the work and life of MLK to many of the other contributors to the Black position in society right down to the presidency of Barack Obama today.
Samuel L Jackson responds briefly in character, though it would have been good to hear more of the preacher rousing the public from his politicised pulpit.
The Mountaintop works because it taps into the contemporary zeitgeist, focusing on civil rights with a feminist twist, while never losing its sense of Dr King’s era.
Even more, it will attract New York theatregoers because it has two big names and looks at a topic that is still a great rarity on Broadway but has a ready-made audience.