November 16, 2011

"The Mountaintop" is More of a Molehill

Katori Hall became the first African-American woman to win the Olivier Award for Best New Play when The Mountaintop, her meditation on the last night in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, played in London in 2009. That was impressive enough but what really got my attention is that the plays she beat out were the heavyweights Enron, Jerusalem and Red.

The fact that Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett signed onto the Broadway production to play King and a mysterious maid at the hotel where he stayed that night before he was killed made Hall’s show one of the must-see events of the fall season. Vogue did a fashion shoot with the stars. The New York Times scheduled one of its TimesTalks with Jackson. The New Yorker ran a profile of Hall (click here to see it).

But now that the show is running at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, I suspect that nearly everyone, including me, is scratching their heads and trying to figure out exactly what the fuss was all about.

Hall, who trained as an actor as well as a playwright, has an ear for dialog and, judging from interviews, a whole lot of moxie (click here to read another interview she did with The Guardian in London). She’s said repeatedly that she wanted to show King as a man and not an icon.

The trouble is that like so many young playwrights whose works have been showcased this fall, she relies too much on snappy dialog. And like so many young people, she thinks that the insights she makes are the first time anyone has ever thought of them.

To hammer home the fact that King is just a regular guy, the play opens with his entering his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and immediately heading to an offstage bathroom, where he relieves himself loudly enough for the audience to hear. It’s supposed to be a signal that King is human just like you and me it but comes off more like one of those potty scenes that now pass for humor in Judd Apatow comedies—hey, isn’t it funny that we can see the character piss, shit or barf?

Hall's other attempts to show the civil rights leader as a real person are cobbled together from a hodgepodge of other influences: King’s now-well-known eye for a pretty girl, Michelle Obama’s comments during the 2008 campaign about her husband’s “stinky feet,” the stress-relieving pillow fight between King and his aides that Taylor Branch describes in  "At Canaan's Edge," the final installment of his masterful biography of King.

There’s nothing wrong with Hall’s borrowing those things. Alchemizing the minutiae of everyday life into art is what artists do. But she falls short of that goal because she isn’t able to reveal anything about King that we don’t already know or to show him in a way we haven’t yet seen. 

In some interviews, Hall, who just turned 30 in May, has said that older people won’t get The Mountaintop because they don’t want to see King as a man with feet of clay. But his human frailties are hardly news after all the FBI revelations about his infidelities and use of profanity or the tales about his insecurities and other weaknesses that can be found in histories of the civil movement and memoirs by some of its other leaders. 

Maybe the audience for this play is younger people who haven’t taken the time to read any of that. The thirtysomething woman sitting behind my friend Joy and me whooped with delight each time Camae, the maid whose name is a tribute to the playwright’s mother Carrie Mae, said something to put King in his place. 

But maybe the whooping woman was just tickled because Bassett, under Kenny Leon’s direction, takes such a you-go-girl approach to the role that includes all the neck swiveling, eye rolling and hip thrusting that have come to define the type. I’ve been a Bassett fan since she played Tina Turner in the biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It” but this performance was too over the top for me.

Jackson, however, fares much better. Make-up and prosthetics do a good enough job of helping him resemble King but it’s Jackson's unforced performance that makes the actor seem so convincing in the role. This is his Broadway debut but I hope it won’t be the last time we see him on the boards (click here to read an interview with him).

Kudos must also go to David Gallo, who not only faithfully recreates the room where King spent his final night but has concocted a coup d’theatre that may be the best moment in the show.

I haven’t given up on Hall, though. Young talent needs time to mature. Like President Obama's Nobel Prize, her Olivier may be premature but that doesn't mean that the ability isn't there. Hall's new play Hurt Village about the residents in a housing project is scheduled to open at Signature Theater Company in February and I’m ordering my tickets right after I post this entry. 

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