The Mountaintop makes use of his name, it makes use of some of his words, and it makes use of his story, but the play is ultimately devoid of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself in any genuine sense. It borders on the edge of exploitation; if there was a sincere purpose behind this telling of King’s last night on earth, it seems that it was lost somewhere between its confused, aimless script and shameless stunt casting.
Samuel L. Jackson, ever effective in films when he keeps within his badass range, is well outside his abilities in the role of Martin Luther King Jr. His struggle to find comfort on the Broadway stage is reminiscent of his awkward presence as Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels, only less entertaining.The gap between King and Jackson’s failed attempt to play him is a wide one indeed, and suspension of disbelief is not capable of such bounds. Between his low energy, his misguided attempt at a Georgia accent, and a certain lack of commitment to the part in general, there is not a single moment in the play where he summons up a convincing King, leaving audience members confused as to what they’re supposed to be watching and why.
Angela Bassett fares better in the fictional role of Camae, providing much-needed energy to an otherwise uneventful evening. Making do with what’s written, Bassett commands stage presence and lands some jokes, both of which are welcomed accomplishments under the circumstances.
Playwright Katori Hall has an ear for the patter of dialog, but has no insight to offer with this story. Attempts to depict King as a flawed man with his own contradictory vices are started in the beginning of the play, then abandoned and left unexplored. Hall’s displayed grasp of King and his significance are extremely limited and under-developed, while her understanding of Camae as a working-class individual is self-incriminating at best. There are multiple references to "bourgeois blacks" throughout the play, yet the class-consciousness of the piece bears the undeniable mark of something written within a collegiate bubble. Camae’s dialog and behavior have a guessed-at quality and lack any true sense of familiarity or understanding.
This dearth of connection with the poorer classes continues as King’s later-life causes of economic equality and the Poor People’s Campaign are barely glazed over, lost in obligatory comparisons with Malcolm X. Fruitless toying with theology, a crutch-like use of theatrical devices, and the disruptive mention of cell phones for cheap laughs all identify Hall as a young playwright, and her pat approach to the play’s ending makes her a poor one at that. Wrapping up with a preachy and visually spectacular finale, Hall deceptively tries to lend some tacked-on weight and meaning that have otherwise been lacking in this thoroughly pointless endeavor.
If Hallmark were interested in making a movie of the week about Dr. King, Ms. Hall’s script would suit them nicely in both its sanitation and watering down of King’s later message, complete with a morale-raising happy ending. The prevailing sense of King being used as a gimmick is beyond insulting both to his memory and to audiences who are expected to be fooled by all this touting of his name. Meanwhile, the true story of what he was doing in his last years, which most likely lead to his untimely assassination, goes completely untold. - C. Jefferson Thom
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre: 242 West 45th Street, Manhattan
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.