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Review - The Mountaintop

Back in 2009, The Public Theatre presented Tracy Scott Wilson's ambitious and very capable drama, The Good Negro, a work of fiction with one character obviously meant as a stand-in for DR. Martin Luther King, Jr., which depicted the leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement as everyday human beings with normal flaws, making what they accomplished a greater achievement than if it were done by the demi-gods some would make them out to be. To that end, the playwright showed the fictional King and his colleagues orchestrating a fight for racial equality by pushing only the most media-friendly images of black people before the press.

Likewise, playwright Katori Hall has been describing The Mountaintop as her attempt to show Dr. King a normal man with normal flaws. To this end she depicts him urinating (off-stage), smoking, drinking a bit, flirting with a young lady and, the real shocker, having smelly feet. Remarkably, that's about as deep as this flimsy little comedy (It can't seriously be called a drama.) gets.

I say remarkably because this ninety minute two-character sketch somehow won the Olivier Award for Best Play and has attracted the involvement of director Kenny Leon and stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. What anyone saw in this script is completely beyond my understanding.

Set on the thunderstorming evening of April 3rd, 1968, shortly after the great orator delivered his, "I've been to The Mountaintop," speech, Hall offers a fantasy of King's last hours before being assassinated, beginning with him anxiously trying to unwind in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel (excellent work by set designer David Gallo). Jackson's few minutes alone on stage suggest we might be in for a thoughtful portrayal, but the chances for any kind of satisfying drama fly out the door once Angela Bassett enters as Camae, an attractive new maid delivering King's coffee. Playing a character based on the author's mother, Leon has Bassett buffoonishly overacting the kind of jivey urban soul sister stereotype familiar to fans of 70s sitcoms and the kind of contemporary entertainment known to its admirers as the "urban theatre circuit" and to its detractors as the "chitlin' circuit."

The evening is handed to Bassett as soon as she enters, with Jackson's King being regulated to straight man as Camae goes from nervously scolding herself for cussing in front of "Preacher King," to giddily having a pillow-fight with him and mimicking the man in a speech where she pleads with her people to, "Kill the white man!"

The cheap gags are mercifully ended once the plot takes a sharp spiritual turn, and there are more lines that seem designed to draw out vocal responses from the audience. As a grand finale, Hall gives each character a solo oration. Camae's sound-bite timeline of the King legacy is flashy but toothless (check out Branden Jacob-Jenkins' Neighbors for a far more biting version of the same type of speech) but once Jackson gets a few moments alone to reflect, we finally get glimpses of a Dr. King that would have been worth the time spent in the theatre.

With its high-profile stars and subject matter, The Mountaintop is likely to be a big commercial success, but if this one is awarded the Tony come June, it will mean we've indeed suffered through a sad and sorry Broadway season.

Photos of Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett by Joan Marcus.

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