PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Mountaintop—A Maid's Way With a Man

Meet the first-nighters at the opening of The Mountaintop at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Samuel L. Jackson; guests Ben Vereen, Alicia Keys and Spike Lee
Samuel L. Jackson; guests Ben Vereen, Alicia Keys and Spike Lee (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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Maid service isn't what it used to be, if we can believe the new Katori Hall play that checked into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre Oct. 13. I would say more, but every Spoiler Alert in my body would be set off and cause irreparable damage.

Suffice it to say, The Mountaintop occurs April 3, 1968, a matter of hours after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been to that mountain he talked about at a mass rally in Memphis' Mason Temple, where he and his small but mighty entourage—Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Hooks— had come to protest the poor pay of black garbage collectors in the city.

He was still under the weather from the protest march earlier in the day—so much so that he had decided not to speak that night—but, at the urging of Abernathy, he changed his mind, braved a torrential thunderstorm and delivered, if not the most famous speech of his life, certainly his second most famous. It would also be his last.

Hall has concocted quite a last night on earth for the good doctor, after he returns from the aforementioned mountaintop to dreary Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. Throwing verbal lightning-bolts is stressful, and he's catching a cold from all that unrelenting rain, so he sends Abernathy off to get something for his cold (Pall Mall reinforcements), and he is left alone to make the obligatory call home and do dry runs on his next oration. A cup of coffee would be helpful so he calls Room Service, which has been discontinued, but coffee—and comfort—arrive anyway in the shapely form of Camae, wearing a maid's outfit and an identity that turns on a dime. Samuel L. Jackson, mustering a very convincing physical facsimile of Dr. King, said at the Espace after-party that the character's interior life was easy to do because Hall's work asked him to play the man-size King, not the one of mythic proportions. "I didn't have to worry about conjuring up an imitation of Dr. King and the one that everybody thinks they know," he relayed, visibly relieved. "I was trying to mold a man who doesn't feel well, is kinda tired and has the weight of the world on his hands. He's in a room by himself where nobody can see him, so he can let his hair down. I'm having a great time doing this part, making discoveries every night."

The actor grew up in Dr. King's backyard (Atlanta) and ushered at his funeral but is reluctant to say he actually knew him. "I've been in rooms with him, and we'd run into each other at various places, but I don't remember any conversations with him."

It is, he allowed, a great role for a Broadway bow, but the big step uptown hasn't left him feeling discernibly different. "It feels like it felt when I was an Off-Broadway actor," he said. Before cinema solidified its hold on him, he trained with the Negro Ensemble Company in plays like Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play. "I'm just glad to be on stage, glad to have a job, happy to be entertaining people in what I believe to be a very important piece of work."

[flipbook] That mysterious chameleon, Camae, is a mass of mood-swings, and Angela Bassett is up to the challenge. "It was freeing, just freeing, to play this character," she said. "I knew she could just be whoever she wanted to be. Katori just had it right there on the page. Camae was written that way, and then I could play with her. It was mostly a matter of just finding the rhythms of the way she spoke."

The role, like the play, ends with a heart-swelling speech, which Bassett said ran four-to-five pages. Because of the nature of the speech, "it probably feels unconnected for the audience, but I found a way to connect, whether it was sounds or images. That was the only way I was able to learn it, the only way to get it in me."

One of the chief collaborators on the emotional impact of the last scene is David Gallo, who is credited with the set and the projection design. The set, he insisted, was an exact replica of the real motel room—which seems almost too ordinary to take up Gallo's time. Just wait. "The complexity of a lot of it was in getting the room represented correctly, down to every minute detail," he said. "We spent a tremendous amount of time in the real room. We actually measured the room and photographed every inch of it. It has remained unchanged since 1968."

Gallo's room goes through an expensive transformation in the closing moments. "It really wasn't a question of money. I definitely wanted to have a supernatural event take place, and I definitely wanted to change the perspective and I wanted to see the balcony. I wanted to take the audience from the room outside the motel to the balcony, and I wanted the projections to emanate from the bloodstains outward."


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Far from kicking off their heels and heading for Disney World, Gallo and director Kenny Leon will join forces again for another new American play, Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly, which goes into rehearsals on Nov. 17 for a Dec. 8 opening at the Cort Theatre, where Leon's Fences had a profitable stay.

Leon thanked his lucky stars that he reached The Mountaintop with two old friends. "I've known Angela Bassett since I was in the ninth grade and she was in the seventh grade in St. Petersburg, FL, and I've known Sam Jackson since 1975," he pointed out. "To get an opportunity to work with not only incredible actors but with friends that you trust—for a director, it doesn't get much better than that."

He also had thanks his platoon of American producers. "My hat's off to the producers who really wanted to do it in America with an American director and an American cast. In London, it was a British director and a British cast. Both productions are valid because we have different ways of relating to Dr. King. I'm very proud of what they did and that they did it there, got the play up, but I thought it was important that we have an American director and cast, and, since we all grew up in the South, we all had a perspective about Dr. King that some others wouldn't.

 

Katori Hall
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"Katori Hall wrote a brilliant play. The challenge was to write in a way that humanizes Dr. King while embracing all of the things that made him great. He loved God, he loved his family, he loved his country—but he was a man. He wasn't something you could put on a shelf and forget about, and that's the way many people want to deal with him. I had some young folks come to the theatre the other night, and they left the theatre saying, 'Hey, I got that baton. I want to go out and make the world different.' And that was the most important thing to me." Hall, who won the Olivier Award for Best Play and an Evening Standard nomination for Most Promising Playwright, joined Leon and the two leads for the curtain call—a dazzling way to make a Broadway debut—Too dazzling, in fact. "The light was in my face so I really couldn't see," she admitted. "I'm actually very calm about it, very excited obviously and very satisfied because it's been such a long journey for The Mountaintop. It's the beginning of a new chapter, and I'm excited to get to it." Signature Theatre is presenting her next, Hurt Village, starting Feb. 7.

The Mountaintop was inspired by a tale her mother told her. "My mother actually grew up around the corner from the Lorraine Motel," she said. "When I was growing up, she would tell me how, when Dr. King came to speak as part of the sanitation workers strike at Mason Temple, she wanted to go hear him, but because there were bomb threats, she decided not to go and missed her opportunity to hear him. The fact she was so afraid to go made me start thinking, 'Well, what was going through his mind? He must have been really scared to go to the church.' That provided a springboard for me to start deconstructing what he was going through psychologically, looking at his fears, looking at his regrets, looking at what this man would be thinking during those last couple of days of his life."

 

Kenny Leon
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The front row of African-American royalty led the big parade on opening night—we're talking Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Magic Johnson, Cicely Tyson and the characteristically uncommunicative Spike Lee—followed by Alicia Keys; Mary Alice, a Tony winner for the first Fences; LaTanya Richardson Jackson; "Precious" Oscar nominee Gabourney Sidibe, now of "Tower Heist"; Giancarlo Esposito (taking a break from "Breaking Bad" to guest-shot on a show his children can watch, " Once Upon a Time"); directors George C. Wolfe and Jerry Mitchell; gossips Liz Smith and Cindy Adams; Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater of the Broadway-bound Seminar; Chapman Roberts with Norma Jean Darden and Gayle King; Mayors Cory Booker and David Dinkins; Mikhi Phifer; Congressman Charles Rangel; TV actor Kevin Spirtas escorting producer Deborah Taylor; A Behanding in Spokane's Anthony Mackie (currently of "Real Steel" and "What's Your Number?" and shooting "Gangster Squad" in L.A.); Ben Vereen (preparing for a spring run of his one-man Ben Vereen: Stepping Out on Broadway); Star Jones; weatherman Al Roker; Pauletta Washington but no Denzel; Bassett's hubby, Courtney B. Vance, a Tony contender for the first Fences; Curtis Martin; Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, who's retooling her last opus, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark; Julian Bond; director Gabriel Barre, who helmed the best of the musical fringe shows ( The Kid Who Would Be Pope) and is now doing readings of a new pop musical called Jawbreaker, based on the same-named 1999 cult film: "It's sorta like 'High School Musical Upside Down'"); Lori Stokes; "Law and Order" stalwart S. Epatha Merkerson, who's producing and directing a documentary but otherwise "actively seeking employment"; Dick Cavett; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo's Glenn Davis (who's gone screenwriter, penning a picture for himself called "The Brothers"); Charles Turner (fresh from "A Gifted Man" episode); Debbie Allen and her sister, Phylicia Rashad (planning to direct her Tony-winning vehicle, A Raisin in the Sun, at the Westport Playhouse next fall); and, last but not least, composer Branford Marsalis, who got a Tony nomination for fortifying the recent Fences with incidental music and is now sprinkling his similar mood-enhancing sounds on The Mountaintop.


Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson take a bow.
Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson take a bow. (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)