Thunderclaps shake the theater; the deluge outside the window is practically Biblical. But for all the Abrahamic ominousness, not too much actually transpires, emotionally or counterhistorically, in The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s giddy and insouciant yet strangely weightless fantasy about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Samuel L. Jackson). Not much can happen, of course: The play is set at the end of a life and the beginning of a legend. It’s late on April 3, 1968, less than 24 hours before the civil-rights movement’s godhead will be cut down by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel.
King enters his room with a cold, a yen for Pall Malls, and a pair of tired, reeking feet. Pacing his room in wind-down mode, he’s indistinguishable from any traveling businessman at the end of a long day, except for the routine sweep for wiretaps. In the bathroom mirror, he practices a new speech — one that sounds a bit more Stokely Carmichael than Gandhi — testing wording and inflection, mulling his public face: Are the days of marching coming to a close? Is a change coming? Can he change with it? And where the hell are his cigarettes? Just as he’s settling in, room service arrives in the form of Camae (Angela Bassett), an excitable young housekeeper with a pan-historic precocity and a mouth that won’t be stopped or even stinted. King — who, by all accounts, enjoyed the company of women who were not his wife, and took refuge in them when times got tough — is flirty and borderline inappropriate; uses the N-word casually to refer to his fidus Achates, Ralph Abernathy; and seems more interested in bumming smokes than breaking down the finer points of nonviolent resistance. This King doesn’t exactly have feet of clay, but they certainly stink as bad as anyone’s (and maybe, if Camae’s to be believed, worse than most). Camae is by turns wide-eyed and fierce, turning the tables on her vaunted interlocutor time and again. It’s a promising (if more than faintly hokey) setup, and there’s just one problem: It goes absolutely nowhere.
What takes place between them is, I think, intended to rattle our fixed-in-pewter notion of the martyred King while ultimately reinforcing the reverence that history and pop culture have accorded him. What I felt, though, was mostly a kind of daydreamy satisfaction, which Hall and her director, Kenny Leon (Fences), try to upset with everything from those portentous thunderclaps to out-and-out mysticism. But the problem remains: Hall has granted us a pungently close audience with the Legend and a delegate, Camae, to interrogate the Man behind it. Yet, pleasantly diverted as I was, I came away feeling no greater intimacy than if I’d spent 90 minutes in a slightly saucier version of Epcot’s Hall of Presidents.
Some of this distance is attributable to Jackson. Obviously, he’s not in the least physically similar to King, but he uses this to his advantage; it moves him away from the trap of documentary realism and into territory beyond the literal. (I especially liked his vocal code-switching on the motel phone, as the Reverend pivots from his "Dr. King" voice to more casual palaver, depending on his audience.) Jackson manages to triangulate his version of King among the historical figure, a unique character of his own devising, and the other icon who haunts this show — namely, Samuel L. Jackson. But when trademarks play trademarks, results can vary, and Jackson’s tremendous control and restraint (especially over his famous bellow) occasionally make this King feel a little cowed.
And he is cowed, of course, by Camae, in whom Hall has invested all the duties and powers of the playwright. Jackson’s actually at his best when he’s back on his heels, impressed and a little threatened by this mercurial sprite — who, as the play digs in, proves to be more than she seems. Camae, a little too programmatically, challenges King’s “bourgie” overclass smugness, his sexism, his adultery, and his male self-regard. “Like most men,” she prophesies, “you ain’t gonna be able to finish what you started.” In the play’s most arresting, most dynamic sequence, Camae puts on King’s jacket, hops atop a motel bed, and gives her own Sermon on the Mount, as King, murmuring call-and-response encouragement and feedback, sits back and grades her. (Bassett’s more comfortable in this scene than any other. In the rest of the show, she gives an incredibly antsy performance, always winding up for her zingers — I sometimes felt the distinction erode between her character’s overeagerness to impress and her own.) Things get thrillingly out of hand as Camae takes the Kingly rhetoric far beyond the bounds of mid-sixties racial propriety. King, grinning, doesn’t struggle much, and even eggs her on. Then he tells her he’d do it better.
It’s a stunning moment, and we wish it led to more. It doesn’t. Hall steadily gives up every piece of ground she gains, and, for extended stretches, The Mountaintop can feel more like a series of molehills. (A bit on Malcolm X here, five minutes on Coretta Scott King there, a Jesse Jackson joke to put the cherry on top, etc. etc.) Hall wants to get closer to King than the history books and marble monuments allow; in spasms, she achieves that. She gets King to pose for “sexy” photographs, smoking his favorite brand. Jackson, relaxed, relaxes us, too, and allows us into a space we’re generally not permitted. But then Hall loses her resolve and retreats into magic and omen; King recedes, only to return for a final speech — the one thing this play didn’t need to supply. Hall dances gingerly atop the marble monuments, but, for good or ill, she’s not prepared to kick any down, or even leave any graffiti that won’t be washed off in the next downpour.