Wednesday, May 27, 2015

NY Review: The Mountaintop

It's a rare Broadway opening that earns its advance hype, but, for Toby Zinman, 'The Mountaintop' by Katori Hall exceeds all expectations: theatrically, emotionally and politically.

NY Review: The Mountaintop


By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

It’s a rare Broadway opening that earns its advance hype, but ‘The Mountaintop’ by Katori Hall exceeds all expectations: theatrically, emotionally and politically. 

The play takes place on April 3, 1968 in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. That motel room is now a museum, a memorial, like the balcony box in Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was assassinated.  April 3, 1968 was the night after Martin Luther King gave his famous last speech (“I’ve been to the mountaintop!”) and the night before he was murdered.  Katori Hall has imagined a 90 minute conversation between King (Samuel L. Jackson) and a  beautiful chambermaid named Camae (Angela Bassett).

Their talk ranges from joking to flirtation to preaching to debate. They discuss civil rights and childhood memories; he phones his wife, Coretta, and has a goodnight chat with his daughter; they talk about Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X, about how to smoke cigarettes to look cool, about  the hole in his sock, about race relations and poverty and God.  They have a pillow fight.  Camae is funny, rowdy, and intense. King is troubled and serious. Both are fearful. The lightning and thunder outside makes matters worse.

Rather than polemical agitprop or a reverential portrait, Hall – who just turned thirty, having already won the Olivier Award naming The Mountaintop Best New Play of 2010 in London—has created a feisty, human, interesting character study, made all the more intriguing by our knowing what is about to happen. When, at one point in the conversation, MLK says, “over my dead body,” you could hear a throaty murmur run through the audience. Similarly, when he is in high rhetorical mode, you could hear various people agreeing with him: “mmhmm.” So when King  finally speaks his renowned crowd-rousing, “Can I get  an Amen?” the audience gave it unbegrudgingly and unembarrassedly.

Two of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars turn in thrilling and self-effacing performances; Jackson has captured King’s rhythms and is wearing both a wig and a moustache to create a similarity of appearance. The gravitas of the very human man he is playing is unmistakable.  Bassett, talking with a thick accent and doing motel-maid sexy rather than diva sexy, is sensational; every thought Camae thinks, every word she utters, has some physical accompaniment—a coy kneebend, an audacious shoulder shrug. Kenny Leon’s direction seems both invisible and flawless.

The set is as authentic and realistic as it could be (designer David Gallo got permission to go into the Lorraine Motel to measure and photograph) until it vanishes. No spoilers—I leave you to gasp on your own, just as the shocking surreal revelation that turns the plot into something much larger than a fake docudrama will remain untold.

Hall’s creation of Camae was a gift to her mother who, when she was fifteen in Memphis, missed King’s last speech because her own mother was fearful of both the bomb threats and the violent storm. So, according to Hall’s comments in a recent New Yorker article, she based the character on her mother, “ her little sassy, mouthy self,” and gave her a monologue near the play’s end—an  epic list punctuated by “The baton passes on”—that is a triple knockout: the writing and the presentation and Bassett’s delivery.

If anybody was wondering whether these two movie stars had the stage chops for such a risky play, wonder no more.

The Mountaintop. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York.  Tickets $ 34.50(rush) $76.50 - $131.50  Information:  Tele-charge: (212) 239-6200. Through Jan. 15.



About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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