New York City Theater
If only Martin Luther King were as fascinating as a chambermaid named Camae. If that sounds like heresy, know the reference is to “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s mild play about the last night of MLK’s life.
Taking place in a room 306 at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, it’s a work tinged with both the mundane and the mysterious. “Mundane” because it cuts the great hero down to human size, showing him as an ordinary man, though called to extraordinary feats. We hear him urinate, we watch him smell his smelly socks. Too, we accept his womanizing, we empathize with his being hounded by the F.B.I., we sympathize with his doubts and his struggling for ways to embody his principles in speeches.
The mysterious part comes when he wonders where his movement will go if he’s not around. His doubts and his legacy are sparked by Camae, the hip stranger who knows facts about him (that his first name was really Michael, that he smokes Pall Malls) the world doesn’t.
Vulgar and untutored as she seems to be, Camae at one point dons King’s jacket to give a stem-winding speech of her own. “I ain’t ordinary,” she says, as she reminds him of his hubris, of the consequences of flying too close to the sun. But she also assures him of his legacy.
Starting with powerful claps of thunder, and ending with a coup de theatre that sweeps away the motel room for a montage of historical moments, the evening is not without its highs. Living in his own time, in his own skin, King can’t see the future, yet it rolls before us in projections of ever-increasing excitement.
The first part of the 90-minute, intermissionless play is filled with banter, the second with portents. Hall’s dialogue is amusing, skirting pedantry, but sermonizing creeps in and we’re left with inspiration but little insight. It’s hard to give clay feet to a saint.
Acted with off-the-charts intensity and humor by Angela Bassett, Camae is an enigma whose secrets beg to be explored. As King, Samuel L. Jackson is dignified and passionate, a man on a mission who, nevertheless is undeniably human.
Kenny Leon directs with variety and David Gallo’s set and production design give the evening a necessary weight. Yet, for all its good intentions, “The Mountaintop” does not reach the peaks to which it strives.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 24, 2011