Something very strange is happening in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.
Playwright Katori Hall takes us into the room to reveal what it might have been like to be in the Memphis room in April 1968 on the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In the room, we watch a civil rights icon flirt, curse, get rattled by lightening, smoke Pall Malls, sip booze, acknowledge his stinky feet and even have a pillow fight with a young woman.
It is as audacious as it is inventive — a simple premise that allows Hall to create a fictional universe of her own with a historical giant. It is also somewhat sacrilegious, showing the fleshy, banal side of a civil rights saint, which is partly the playwright's goal, too.
Her thrilling, wild, provocative flight of magical realism opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with just two characters, Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as a mysterious motel maid who visits his room with coffee.
"I'm not perfect," King tells the woman, Camae.
"That you ain't!" she replies.
Jackson, who was an usher at King's funeral, shows King to be proud, fussy, funny, sad, vain, mugging, lecherous, kind and frightened. He modulates his voice when throwing out potential lines for a speech but keeps that hallowed voice far from his normal conversation, further separating the public King and the private man. In certain light, with his thin mustache and tightly cropped hair, Jackson eerily resembles his real-life model. At other times, he is just the "Snakes on a Plane" dude in a white shirt.
Bassett, on the other hand, is not mimicking any real person and so has the freedom to create — and she does indeed. Camae comes into the room announcing that it's her first day on the job. At first, she seems overawed at being with King and her theatricality is a little over-the-top but that doesn't last.
Soon, she's swearing, teasing and sharing her flask of booze, cigarettes and her thoughts on the futility of peaceful protests with a man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired a 30-foot stone on the National Mall.
"Walkin' will only get you so far, Preacher King," she says impishly.
"We're not just walking; we're marching," he says.
Bassett's character arc is a wonder to behold and she delivers one of her best performances since she played Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do with It." Her Camae starts off obsequious, grows sassy, then bureaucratic, and finally ends by being all-knowing.
The play made its world debut in London and was the winner of the best new play Olivier award in London last year. Since then, a new cast and a new director, Kenny Leon, have jumped aboard.
Allusions to death are everywhere, and take on added weight since the audience knows this is King's last night on Earth. "Over my dead body," King says at one point to his visitor. Thunder and lightning as a storm rages outside jolt King, a touch that sounds potentially hokey but works here both as a signal of the weeping heavens and the recoil of an assassin's gun.
David Gallo's set is a meticulous reproduction of King's room at the Lorraine Motel. As the play unfolds, the room takes on a tomblike claustrophobia, before breaking apart wondrously in the final scene, a bit like what Hall's script has done to history. Despite the confining space, Leon has both King and Camae moving across the stage as they conduct their strange ballet.
Hall keeps her audience guessing about what will happen between King and Camae, and how far she is willing to pull the man down from his pedestal. Will we watch the beginning of an affair? Will King change his views on peaceful protest? And who exactly is Camae? Hall's answers come in time and then she's off on another magical tour through history.
This is playwrighting without a net, a defiant poke in the eye of all historical conventions and political correctness. Watching King in a pillow fight or plead for life might not be what people came in expecting to see — or want to see — but it serves the purpose of further breaking the polite spell that has kept King coolly removed from everyday life. The King that is left after Hall's humanization project is somehow more real and urgent and whole.
The inevitable standing ovations after the play are for King as much as for the actors and Hall.
What was Martin Luther King Jr.'s final night on Earth like in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis?
Katori Hall offers a dramatic response to that question with her irreverent fantasy "The Mountaintop," which opened Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
She depicts events of that fateful date as a soul-stirring and eye-opening hoot, thanks to Camae (Angela Bassett), a sassy chambermaid with whom King (Samuel L. Jackson) shares Pall Malls, a pillow fight (no joke) and pictures of his place in history.
The drama was seen in another production in 2009 in London, where it won an Olivier Award. It marks the Broadway debut of 30-year-old Hall, who grew up in Memphis.
While "The Mountaintop" is tall on imagination, it is short on revelations. Unless you count Hall's assertion that King had doubts and lapses personally and professionally. And that God is a proud black woman.
The action unfolds on a proverbial dark and stormy night, April 3, 1968, hours before King was assassinated. The stormy weather mirrors the pastor's mind. Fresh from his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech at the Mason Temple, he returns to the motel (rendered in well-researched detail by David Gallo) with stinky feet and grave concerns about death threats and the future of the civil rights movement.
Blinding lightning and deafening thunder aren't helping, so he orders coffee to calm down. Camae arrives with a carafe of joe, a flask of whisky and a bold and uncensored sense of humor.
When King asks her if he should shave his mustache, she says, "I thought you was gone ask me about somethin' mo' important than that." In short order, she's standing barefoot on a bed and delivering an inflammatory speech she thinks he should give.
About this time, the play shifts gears and Camae's significance expands exponentially. Without spoiling things — if you've seen Hall's "Hoodoo Love," you'll know she's a writer whose stories trek to spiritual realms.
Bassett, famous for playing Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It," shows off her comic side as the cussing cutup. Camae's oratorical passion shows Hall's writing at its best, but the play's broad sitcom-y jokiness makes the maid seem like a cartoon.
Samuel L. Jackson brings low-key confidence as King. The actor is known for playing druggies and killers in films such as "Jungle Fever" and "Pulp Fiction" and neatly pulls a 180 in his fine portrait of the civil rights icon.
Jackson doesn't look much like King, but thanks to makeup, he doesn't look like himself, either, so the illusion works. His sonorous voice sounds right, too.
Director Kenny Leon guides his cast through the play's shifts in tone and direction. That includes the rousing, if calculated, one sprung at the 11th hour.
The scene ultimately tells us what we already know, but even so, it's apt to give you a buzz like a mountain high.
It’s a stormy night in Memphis on April 3, 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. has only a few hours left to live.
Earlier that evening, he delivered his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, and now he’s back in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Still hopped up on adrenaline, he calls the front desk for coffee, despite the late hour. As portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, in his official Broadway debut, King is naturally imposing but also accessible and down to earth -- especially toward the maid, Camae, who brings his order.
What happens next between King and Camae -- played by Angela Bassett -- makes up “The Mountaintop,” by 30-year-old playwright Katori Hall.
Considering one of the characters is a civil-rights hero, the 90-minute two-hander has some surprisingly corny moments. But the finale offers a fantastic pay-off that ranks among the most exhilarating 10 minutes of the year.
In his speech that night, King did mention a storm warning, making the setting authentic enough. So, too, is David Gallo’s faithful re-creation of Room 306, down to the ’60s-orange bedspreads.
But the show, directed by Kenny Leon (“Fences”), doesn’t traffic in PBS-style realism.
Not only is Camae fictional (she’s based on the playwright’s own mother), but the play touches on a metaphysical, even downright supernatural realm.
Camae is a new employee, first night on the job. She’s thrilled about meeting the man she’s seen “on the TV down at Woolworth’s,” but she keeps her wits about her as they share a smoke and casual chit-chat.
King, lonely and tense, is happy for the company. Despite knowing chuckles from the audience -- his penchant for the ladies is well known -- the play doesn’t suggest anything untoward.
Hall gives us the man behind the myth: King audibly uses the bathroom, his feet stink (as Camae tells him), he can be petulant and demanding. Despite some occasional stiffness, Jackson is a good fit and projects a calm, natural authority.
Bassett isn’t the right age for Camae, who’s meant to be in her 20s, and she overdoes the “young” mannerisms, to grating effect.
But then Hall herself goes for cutesy tricks, getting easy laughs from Camae’s cussing and from King’s heart-to-heart with God. Don’t expect any sophisticated, stimulating banter: Hall tries so much to make him one of us that she robs him of his intellectual might.
But then there’s that ending, a brilliantly staged journey in which the visuals, Branford Marsalis’ original music and Bassett’s incantatory speech -- she really rises to the occasion -- combine to breathtaking effect.
The path to the peak may be uneven, but the view from there is worth it.
Even before the first flash of lightning — and there will be plenty of that before evening’s end — an ominous electricity crackles through the opening moments of “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s surprisingly thin new play about a monumental subject, which opened on Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. It’s not that what we’re looking at appears in itself to be fraught with significance. It’s only a generic, dirt-toned motel room, depressingly familiar in its seediness.
Yet if you’ve checked your program, you’re probably regarding that room through the anxious blur that people bring to the contemplation of events terrible and historic. The time and place of “The Mountaintop,” which stars an estimable Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, are (the playbill says): “April 3, 1968. Room 306, Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee.” That’s the day before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; the place is where he spent his last night.
The apprehension only builds when Mr. Jackson makes his entrance as Dr. King, with an end-of-the-road slump and a bad cough. And there’s an undeniable thrill in listening to him weigh and repeat phrases — like “Why America is going to hell” — words he is presumably trying out for a future speech. You may think wonderingly of how momentousness emerges from mundane moments.
Yet during the next 85 intermissionless minutes, the tension will steadily seep out of “The Mountaintop,” despite a teasing mystery at the center of its plot. Defusion may be what Ms. Hall had in mind. Though it considers a watershed act of violence in American history, this is at heart a comfort play, a nursery room fable for grown-ups that seeks to reconcile us with a tragedy that tore the fabric of a nation. Unfortunately, this big-picture drama (and Ms. Hall’s big picture is bigger than you imagine) is short on revelatory close-ups. And despite an engagingly low-key performance by Mr. Jackson, it never provides the organic details and insights that would make Martin Luther King live anew.
A sleeper hit in London, where it won the 2010 Olivier Award for best new play, “The Mountaintop” arrives on Broadway attended by great expectations and the skepticism that some New York theatergoers may feel about British-endorsed, American-themed productions. (“Enron,” anyone?) That the American Ms. Hall was still in her 20s and unknown when “The Mountaintop” took off in London (at a fringe theater for new playwrights in Battersea) lends a Cinderella glow to its success.
A big-time New York incarnation — in a Broadway house with a fast-rising director (Kenny Leon, who staged the Tony-winning revival of “Fences”) and two formidable Hollywood stars — should give this story a triumphant final chapter. Yet it’s hard not to feel that “The Mountaintop” might have worked better in a smaller, lower-profile production. Its charms are those of an ingenious sketch. Mounting it on this scale turns out to be a bit like spinning gossamer into Dacron.
Of course there’s nothing wispy about the subject of the play, which features sets and projections by David Gallo and subtle original music by Branford Marsalis. “The Mountaintop” begins when Dr. King returns to his motel room on a stormy night, having just delivered the magnificent work of oratory called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple in Memphis, in support of a sanitation workers’ strike.
He’s tired and half-sick, disappointed by the turnout for his appearance and plagued by the now habitual threats on his life. (His speech alluded hauntingly to his own death.) Now, as he waits for his roommate, his close associate the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to come back with cigarettes (Pall Malls), he paces, peers through the curtains and checks the room repeatedly for listening devices.
This setting and setup are also the basis for another play, “The Man in Room 306,” a solo show written and performed by Craig Alan Edwards and seen in New York in January 2010. Ms. Hall varies the equation by introducing a second character, Camae (Ms. Bassett), an obviously spirited young woman working as a maid at the motel, who arrives with coffee for Dr. King.
At first she seems cowed by Dr. King’s stature, but she’s flirtatious too, and foul-mouthed. It is soon clear that there’s a chemistry, an ineffable sense of connection, between man and maid (perhaps appropriate to Dr. King’s reputation as a womanizer). Where that chemistry leads them and what forms it takes give “The Mountaintop” its structure.
I am honor-bound (or at least requested by the production’s press representatives) to reveal no further details of their relationship. But I feel at liberty to disclose that their dialogue covers a multitude of political and biographical topics, from the value of violent versus peaceful revolution to the kind of flowers Dr. King sends his wife, Coretta.
I also feel obliged to say that “The Mountaintop” more than once detours into that realm where spiritual uplift meets cuteness that I associate with some greeting cards and television Christmas specials.
Ms. Bassett, I’m sad to report, only accentuates the cuteness quotient. She has a vibrant and assured stage presence, and she looks as smashing as she did as Tina Turner in the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” But her natural regality is at odds with the giggly, exaggerated “aw shucks” persona she affects. I suppose you could argue that this is deliberate, since Camae isn’t what she seems to be. But no, I’m not buying that argument (and I’d explain why if I hadn’t taken a vow of secrecy).
Her comic effusiveness sometimes has the effect of reducing Mr. Jackson to straight man. Though he doesn’t have Ms. Bassett’s theater experience, this imposing film actor (“Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown”) turns out to be a natural onstage, and he gives a lucid and likable performance. But it might help the balance of Mr. Leon’s production if Ms. Bassett could lend Mr. Jackson a little of her intensity (while putting a lid on her own). As it is, Mr. Jackson can register as a self-effacing member of Ms. Bassett’s audience.
Mind you, a large part of Ms. Hall’s point is that Martin Luther King was a human being, with all the attendant foibles and frailties. He urinates (we hear him doing so just offstage, early in the show), has smelly feet, smokes too much and lies to his wife. And I think that the play’s central gimmick (for that is what it is) is Ms. Hall’s attempt to bridge the confounding gap between the mortal and immortal that is part of our perception of historically great men and women.
Both sides of this dichotomy are presented, at least symbolically. I certainly bought Mr. Jackson’s Dr. King as an ordinary man for much of the play, and I felt a spark of Dr. King-like divinity in his rousing climactic oratory. What I didn’t feel was how one side made the other possible. That would require a fuller, more intricately developed play than Ms. Hall has begun to provide here.
Many who knew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. emphasize his deep sense of humility. Some who knew him well have also recalled a sharp sense of humor.
Given those traits, the revered civil rights leader would likely have been the last person outraged by his superficially irreverent portrayal in The Mountaintop (** out of four), Katori Hall's thoughtful, heartfelt and extremely bumpy reimagining of the night before King's assassination.
Hall's preacher — played by Samuel L. Jackson in this production, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre — is an earthy fellow, hardly immune to the lure of cigarettes and beautiful women. When one of the latter, in the form of Angela Bassett, enters his Memphis hotel room with room-service coffee, the two quickly strike up a flirtatious rapport, marked by frank, sometimes colorful language.
There's a twist about halfway through, though; and earthy would be the last word to describe it. Hall is interested in both humanizing King and underlining his larger-than-life stature — and not just as an African-American icon.
It's no coincidence that the one other character in Mountaintop is a woman, or that it's repeatedly pointed out that King's final speech was to sanitation workers. The play, which earned its author the Olivier Award in London, aims to put King's legacy in perspective for anyone who takes the struggles and accomplishments of various human rights movements for granted.
It's an admirable goal, but one suspects that at least some Olivier voters were more enamored of Hall's spirit than her execution. The dialogue here can be awkward and obvious, the tone wildly uneven. Too-cute jokes mingle uncomfortably with melodramatic flourishes, such as thunderbolts that ominously interrupt conversations.
Bassett's role, Camae, is especially problematic, a tough-talking enigma prone to wisecracks on race and gender. Under Kenny Leon's direction, which indulges Hall's histrionic impulses, the elegant actress throws vanity and discipline to the wind. If her boisterous line readings made some audience members cheer at a recent preview, it's probable others were cringing.
Jackson isn't required to chew the scenery as vigorously. Still, even if you accept the perfectly credible and appealing notion that King had an impish streak, there's something too aggressively folksy about this portrait. It's one thing to envision King as a mischievous wit, quite another to hear him speaking like a sitcom character.
The play ends on a lofty note, providing both Jackson and Bassett ambitious, lyrical monologues. Still, the actors, and certainly the subject, deserve a higher plane than The Moutaintop provides.