I went to New York City over winter break to see Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop on Broadway. I had been excited about seeing the play since it debuted in October. It stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in a re-imagining of the night before Martin Luther King’s death.
I found the play to be provocative and compelling in many ways, helping me to challenge what it means to celebrate MLK Day tomorrow. More importantly I have been challenged to think about what it means to honor his legacy, a legacy that we inherited, linked to a dream that we expand with our own visions of equality and justice.
The play runs through Sunday, January 22, and if you are in NYC or will be in NYC between now and then, here are five reasons I recommend you see it:
1. The play offers a portrayal of Martin Luther King as human, vulnerable, flawed, and afraid. It also exposes his sexism, his occasional self-importance, his frustrations with the movement, his fears about dying, and competing responses to his cause. It offers an intimate glance of his private, alone without an audience self, and then his flirtatious, needy, interestingly comical self– in the presence of a common woman who is both impressed by and ambivalent with him. His regular black man self is more ephemeral than his public self, but we see the conflicts and complications of what his life must have been like, from the inside out.
2. The play is held together in the hands of a heroine (and expands the possibilities of feminine-focused spirituality). One of the two main characters is Camay, a black woman who is strong, opinionated, beautiful, witty, charming, sarcastic, foul-mouthed and angelic, but NOT a stereotype! Her character will inspire you to be yourself unapologetically and to use your traumas and pain to be a worldchanger.
3. The play does not shy away from the controversies or contradictions of King’s life, or his legacy. It insinuates that there were multiple sides to him, as there are to all of us. It shows us a glimpse of who he might have been, beyond the iconic figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement.
4. The play offers a reminder that social activism and social justice movements don’t start or end with one person. Important work requires multiple arms (and sometimes more than a lifetime of time to invest).
5. The play has an inspiring and powerful message. (I am sure you saw this one coming). The show makes you think AND feel. As Angela Bassett said of the play, “It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you sigh.”
It is, however, not a show without flaws. The scope of the topic is huge for an 85 minute narrative, and I found it to be a little slow-starting. Also, as a rural black girl the exaggerated southern accents were distracting, at best. Other critics have pointed out the lack of historical accuracy or the (un)believability of King’s everydayness. I, however, am a fan. The storyline captured my imagination and the amazing portrayals by the actors gave me characters I could care about, representations that were familiar, and a story/possibility that I will remember.
If it weren’t for the miles I would have to travel and the money I would have to find, I would see it again before the curtain closes!