Friday, October 14, 2011

The Mountaintop @ Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

April 3, 1968.  Memphis, Tennessee. The Lorraine Motel – Room 306.  The date and setting for the new powerful drama that re-imagines the final night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.  The Mountaintop is the spell binding and deeply emotional new piece by playwright Katori Hall that leaves the audience shocked, laughing, tearing up, and inspired.  Featuring the talents of Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, this piece of theatre features strong acting, tremendous writing, and stunning direction.  The Mountaintop is one of those plays that will have the audience leaving the theatre changed forever.
A few hours after delivering the famous “Mountaintop” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. checked into room 306 at the Lorraine Motel.  The event that followed changed the face of the world forever – the civil rights movement took on a whole new front.  Many people have often wondered how one of the world’s greatest leaders lived his final hours.  The Mountaintop takes a look at these last few hours.  Opening with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. coming in from the harsh rain, this piece quickly takes off exploring the idea that MLK was an average man, too.  He had faced some of the same problems as the rest of the world – body pains, smelly feet, the need to smoke, the desire for a cup of coffee in order to pull an all-nighter, and much more.  It is not much later that MLK has his cup of coffee delivered by Camae, a maid who is currently working her first shift at the Lorraine Motel.  Before long, it becomes apparent that MLK does not want to be alone, and Camae is more than willing to share her opinion with the preacher.  Exploring the common themes of faith, death, life, and belonging, The Mountaintop takes a whole new look on these themes and the common perception of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is too often that stars are brought to the Great White Way to sell seats, regardless of whether this star fits the bill; however, this is definitely not one of those times.  Most reviews coming out today, and in the future, will more than likely be praising Angela Bassett – and rightfully so; this review, unlike the majority, would like to start with Samuel L. Jackson, who delivers the performance of his life.  Portraying one of the most famous men in history, that many still worship and admire, is no easy feat.   Jackson, known for his smooth moves in such films as Iron Man 2, Snakes on a Plane, and Pulp Fiction, transforms into MLK – the way he moves, talks, and reacts.  Jackson took “the preacher” off of the high pedestal and made him a man.  A man who is smart.  A man who has flaws.  A man who has his faith.  A family man.  A transformation that truly took the audiences breath away.  What little breath the audience might have had left was taken up by Jackson’s leading lady, Angela Bassett of film’s What’s Love Got to Do with It and television’s ER.  The wise cracking, self-loving, instigator of a maid is given a heart and plenty of soul with Bassett behind the wheel.  Delivering one of the most passionate performances Broadway has seen in a long time, Bassett enters the scene full of passion and keeps the drive going for the entirety of the ninety minute run time.  Bassett makes this character of fiction seem so real that it is hard to imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final hours existing without her.  When these two dynamites join forces, souls are left on the stage each and every performance creating one of the best theatrical events a theatre go-er could ask for.
Bringing this epic night to life was a creative team that worked diligently to make sure that every detail of that famous night was created perfectly.  Starting with the atmosphere, scenic designer David Gallo (Memphis, Xanadu) brought room 306 to the New York stage fabric by fabric and piece of furniture by piece of furniture.  Gallo actually visited the real Lorraine Motel in order to have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fully realized for The Mountaintop.  Giving the characters a wardrobe right from the 1960s is costume designer Constanza Romero (Fences).  Dressing MLK in the classic blue suit and tie and Camae in a vibrant yellow maid outfit, Romero draws the line between the two worlds of the praised and the help.  Shedding some light on the scene is designer Brian MacDevitt (the upcoming Chinglish).  Exploring the dull lights of a 1960s motel room fused with the bustling life of the outside world that is about to be changed forever, MacDevitt creates a wonderful tone for this piece.  Handling the whole package with care is director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun).  With a piece that crosses the line and addresses such topics as religion and race using a national icon, Leon drives the piece with a loving hand giving it the flow and grace that it deserves.  Katori Hall’s words are crafted so diligently and tended to so well allowing The Mountaintop to become one of the next great classics.
Every once and a while a show comes along that makes you stop and think – The Mountaintop is that piece.  Smart, powerful, and deeply moving, this new production takes the theatre world by storm.  When Jackson and Basset come together to tell Katori Hall’s story, the audience cannot help but join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the mountaintop.

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