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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