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The real question about The Mountaintop (Jacobs Theatre), Katori Hall’s fantasy on the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, is what function it serves. America hardly needs another reminder of Dr. King himself: A national holiday and a new monument celebrate him; his name is constantly invoked in every imaginable political context. Nor could you call The Mountaintop much of a reminder: It shows the revered civil rights leader (Samuel L. Jackson), at the Memphis motel where he was shortly to be assassinated, engaging in a one-on-one evening of horseplay, seduction, and bickering with a supernaturally sassy hotel maid (Angela Bassett).
Hall’s play touches, albeit driftingly, on a wide range of matters we associate with King, from his devoutness and his passionate quest for justice to his fallibility, his weariness, and his painfully well-documented adulteries. But the encounter, skipping almost capriciously from one topic to the next, never links its materials into a sustained portrait. Jackson, an actor of solidity, warmth, and skill, has to summon all his resources to patch the disparate moments together; his performance sometimes conveys hints of a desperation that has nothing to do with the character’s growing awareness of his imminent death.
The eagerness with which Hall displays King’s lapses from ministerial virtue (boozing, cussing, bitching about his supporters, coming on to pretty girls) hardly serves to critique the sacrosanct figure. (Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro, at the Public Theater two seasons ago, faced that challenge both more effectively and more astutely.) Chiefly, the sight of a half-rowdy Dr. King flirtatiously bumming cigarettes off the maid or leaping into a pillow fight with her, seems intended as slapstick fun to keep the yokels amused in a time-honored tradition of cornball showbiz. Director Kenny Leon allows Bassett’s heavily italicized rendering of these bits to push this side of the script way farther than it needs—or deserves—to go.
But in addition to throwing the play’s trajectory off-kilter, Bassett’s overstated clowning brings back the question of what the play thinks it’s doing. The idea that a heroic minister has feet of clay could be comic; the reactions men have when confronted with news of their impending death often are. But trying to juxtapose what King stood for and what he means historically, flaws and all, with a good-time Broadway par-tayy seems pointless and duly proves unviable.