Friday, November 04, 2011

Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop"

As a friend commented, Angela Bassett tore up the play at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last night. She was phenomenal, the heat and the heart of the action. She played the hotel maid who turned out to be an angel who had come to tell Martin Luther King Jr. (Samuel Jackson) that it was time for him to die. I was somewhat dismayed at first by the revelation that she was angelic because she was so full-blooded and interesting an earthly being, but the turn of events led to some well-judged comedy, in particular, a funny phone conversation that King had with Grandmother God, which ultimately underlined the pathos of a man coming to terms with his untimely end.

The 90-minute play, directed by Kenny Leon, humanized the monument that is the civil rights leader. It opened with King shouting to his friend to buy him Pall Mall. The smoke, which generated high sexual tension between a flirtatious King and Bassett's comely Camae, was also a sign of their shared humanity. King entered his motel room, coughing badly, and when he relieved himself in the bathroom we heard the icon passing water. His shoes were a particularly potent symbol. In their stink, they reminded the audience obliquely of the civil rights marches--the blacks' sacrifice and the whites' violence. Later, Camae put on King's coat to tell him what she would say if she were him, but she refused to wear his stinking shoes. In that refusal, Hall the playwright was also subtly pointing out that no one else could have walked in the man's shoes.

Instead of trying to be King, his successors should "carry on the baton" dropped by his death. That quotation became a rousing refrain when Camae the angel showed King the future before he died. Accompanied by original music by Branford Marsalis, the motel room gave way to a slide projection that highlighted the major events, as seen from an African American perspective, from King's assassination to Obama's inauguration. The last speech made by Samuel Jackson as King was very moving. He was no longer a reverberating voice, as heard at the start, but a man pleading quietly with other men and women.

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