last thursday pm i attended the broadway premiere of playwright katori hall's olivier award-winning drama, the mountaintop. tony award nominee kenny leon directs samuel l. jackson as the rev. dr. martin luther king, jr. & angela bassett as camae, an enigmatic maid at the lorraine motel in memphis, tennessee where the civil rights leader has retired after delivering his legendary "i've been to the mountaintop" speech.
myself & the two buddies who invited me nestled into the mezzanine of the bernard b. jacobs theatre, undaunted by the chill inside. we were excited to witness two oscar nominated actors who have not worked together since the early 80's when the negro ensemble company produced colored people's time. says jackson, "we all know that somebody else was supposed to do the play & she didn't," referring to halle berry's rumored attachment, "but things always happen the way they're supposed to."
the part of camae was named after the playwright's mother (carrie-mae), who grew up near the lorraine motel. but bassett stresses hers is a fictitious character: "i'm doing my own thing." in shaping his portrayal, jackson - who was an usher at dr. king, jr's funeral - drew upon his connection beyond their shared spirit of activism. says jackson, "like me, he was a father, a husband & he dealt with fame."
the dubious encounter between dr. king, jr. & the maid takes place in room 306 of the motel on april 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. when jackson enters the room (to the audience's applause), what struck me immediately was his complete lack of physical resemblance to dr. king, jr. the make-up & wardrobe was terrible. additionally, his southern accent was horrendous. he consistently went in & out of the accent, which served more of a distraction than a reminder of dr. king's warmth.
still, the drama was interesting in depicting dr. king, jr. as a man, not an icon. anxious about writing an upcoming sermon & also out of pall malls, at one point he looks out the window & says, "where is that nigger with my cigarettes?" the audience howled with laughter, partly because those words were unexpected & also because the pain associated with the 'n' word has become normalized.
despite their quiet chemistry, this writer feels bassett overpowered jackson on stage. her role as camae was brilliant. her humanity evolved as the play progressed; ironically, she met dr. king, jr. on her first day of work. camae was initially meek & timid, somewhat awestruck. yet as they continued to rapport (aided by the liquor in her pocket & them sharing her pall malls) she became this fiery, sassy woman who could obviously hold her own.
there was a sense of discomfort in the air: dr. king, jr was openly flirting with camae. their sexual tension was palpable, yet camae made him subtly clear about her respect for his marriage & her dignity as a christian woman. she knew her worth. nevertheless, the two playfully traded jabs without causing harm. the actors' timing was sharp & the play's pace was brisk. hall's writing was excellent, allowing two people to become equals, regardless of their class & gender differences.
my friends & i liked the play immensely. seeing dr. king, jr. as a vulnerable hue-man being exceeded my expectations & shattered my illusions about his stoic image. ultimately, we were treated to a well-rounded portrait of a man with fears & flaws, yet remains steadfast to his principles. jackson said, "we hope audiences enjoy the play; more importantly, angela & i will enjoy being there together, telling this wonderful story."
- mark j. tuggle
- harlem, usa
- same-gender-loving contemporary descendant of enslaved africans. community activist, feminist, health educator, independent filmmaker, mentor, playwright, poet & spiritual being. featured at, in & on africana.com, afrikan poetry theatre, angel herald, bejata dot com, bet tonight with tavis smiley, blacklight online, black noir, brooklyn moon cafe, gmhc's barbershop, klmo-fm, lgbt community services center, longmoor productions, nuyorican poets cafe, our corner, poz, pulse, rolling out new york, rush arts gallery, saint veronica's church, schomburg center for research in black culture, sexplorations, the citizen, the new york times, the soundz bar, the trenton times, the village voice, upn news, uzuri, venus, vibe, wbai-fm, wnyc-fm & wqht-fm. volunteered with adodi, bailey house, inc., black men's xchange-new york, colorofchange.org, drug policy alliance, east harlem tutorial program, imagenation film & music festival, presente.org, save darfur coalition, the enough project, the osborne association, the sledge group & your black world. worked on films with maurice jamal & heather murphy. writing student of phil bertelsen & ed bullins. firstname.lastname@example.org.