Katori Hall’s play, The Mountaintop, which is loosely based on the life of iconic civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., arrived with mixed reviews in its New York premiere.
The play is primarily centered around the time King spent in his Memphis hotel room on the eve of his assassination. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is played by Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett takes on the role of Camae, a hotel maid who engages in conversation with King upon his arrival.
Although the film’s subject matter is serious and largely true; there is a fair amount of fictional speculation which has drawn praise and criticisms for Hall’s vision.
The play begins as Martin enters from a thunderstorm. He then commences pacing around the hotel room while attempting to tackle a future sermon on American arrogance. Later, King calls room service for coffee, which introduces the audience to Camae (Angela Bassett), an attractive new maid who only recently started working at the hotel.
The play continues with King implicitly flirting with the maid as she smiles away his advances. Soon however, Basset’s character opens up and begins to challenge his patriarchal views while mocking several outdated ideals. Camae also questioned the effectiveness of his non-violent methods while suggesting the time for marching may be at an end allowing the time for fighting to begin.
David Rooney, a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, saw this performance as a creatively orchestrated rendition of possible events occurring before Kings death.
“The Mountaintop literally explodes into metaphysical magic realism, ruminating on race and politics, life and death in ways that connect King’s legacy to every person in the audience.”
Rooney added that such a vision wouldn’t be possible without strong, believable actors such as, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, which he coined as having, “inarguable authority.”
Rooney went on to express that it was no wonder that the film was awarded “best play” at the Oliver awards especially given its plaudit 2009 London premiere.
However, other critics were not so quick to agree, as some found King’s candid and joshing demeanor distasteful and felt the implication that he would have spent the remainder of his hours in a flirtatious exchange simply unbelievable.
In an article for USA Today, Elysa Gardner described The Mountaintop as a “superficially irreverent portrayal” of the night preceding Kings death.
Gardner went on to explain that the humor Hall attempted to portray was at times inappropriate, and made the actors appear overly rehearsed.
“Still, even if you accept the perfectly credible and appealing notion that King had an impish streak, there’s something too aggressively folksy about this portrait. It’s one thing to envision King as a mischievous wit, quite another to hear him speaking like a sitcom character.”
Gardner even went on to claim that the Oliver award my have been given more out of admiration of the King legacy, rather than the films artistic qualities.
“It’s an admirable goal, but one suspects that at least some Olivier voters were more enamored of Hall’s spirit than her execution.”
elysa even went as far as to say that Angela Bassett’s role as Camae, only made the film more incoherent with an unevenness of character which is uncharacteristic of Bassett’s talents.
“Bassett’s role, Camae, is especially problematic, a tough-talking enigma prone to wisecracks on race and gender. Under Kenny Leon’s direction, which indulges Hall’s histrionic impulses, the elegant actress throws vanity and discipline to the wind. If her boisterous line readings made some audience members cheer at a recent preview, it’s probable others were cringing.”
Wow, these are certainly conflicting viewpoints regarding The Mountaintop. What do you think? Angela Bassett and a few of her celebrity friends including Alicia Keys, hubby Swizz Beatz, Ruby Dee, Gayle King and others joined the cast for opening night at the Benard Jacobs Theater in New York City.
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The review from USA Today is by Elysa Gardner, who is the theatre critic for the paper. Joan Marcus is a photographer, who is credited for the photos accompanying the review – NOT the critic herself.