Katori Hall begins The Mountaintop by taking a man whose face is plastered all over New York City, a man who is compared to Jesus and Gandhi and who has just biblically bellowed before his final audience, “I’ve seen the Promised Land … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and presenting this lion as a mere human being. As the curtain rises, he asks his companion Ralph Abernathy to buy him a pack of Pall Malls, urinates in a motel bathroom, and gasps at the stench of his own feet. It is an important point—by deifying King, we undermine his struggle while also excusing ourselves for not living up to his standards—so yes, the sound of his piss hitting the toilet bowl is, in its own way, a progressive beat. Ms. Hall also has fun with dramatic irony, so when he reads something he doesn’t like in an advance copy of the next morning’s paper, mumbling, “Over my dead body,” the audience can Ooh with satisfaction; his occasional, derogatory references to “Jesse” also get a bit of comedic mileage.
The appearance of an uneducated maid named Camae (Angela Bassett) who seems unable to leave his room sets up a theatrical conceit that might work for twenty minutes but certainly not for ninety; Samuel L. Jackson, as King, gets to rattle off the odd platitude—“Fear makes us all weak,” “They hate so easily and we love too much,” “We all want the same thing: a smile, a hug”—while she calls him out on his bourgeois pretentions by flouting her surprising erudition. She also gets a nice monologue in which she challenges the flaws in his nonviolent approach by giving a lecture of her own that ends with, “Fuck the white man.”
But about halfway through, Ms. Hall throws in a peculiar, ill-fitting twist, as if, like a student desperately typing nonsense in order to meet the ten-page minimum on her paper, she realized too late that she didn’t really have a full-length play on her hands: it turns out, then, that Camae is not a maid but is in fact the angel who has come to bring King over to the other side. For a production that began with such dedication to verisimilitude, this jump into the fantastic is at best jarring and at worst dreadfully conceived. Camae reveals that God is in fact a proud, Black woman who is not in love but “in like” with King and ready to bring him to the Promised Land; earlier efforts to not take the giant too seriously plummet into an almost inconceivably terrible scene in which he argues with “God, ma’am” on the telephone about her decision to have him killed. Furthermore, the idea of subverting our (and King’s) expectations of God is nothing but juvenile role reversal masquerading as feminism—is it really a victory to challenge white patriarchy by fantasizing about a Black matriarchy? As Audrey Lorde wrote in her famous essay, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—a lesson we also learned, incidentally, from King himself.
In an ultimate act of theatrical self-destruction, Ms. Hall’s final scene has Camae give King a bullet-point history lesson about the events following his death, with pictures projected onto the back of the stage in Power Point form. Then he gives us an obligatory snippet of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and the play ends. When the dust settles, what we have is a messy, incomplete senior thesis desperately in need of a good advisor. And while Mr. Jackson certainly has the kind of histrionic gravitas that suits King, Ms. Bassett seems either under- or misdirected, constantly shifting between moral seriousness and utter silliness, as if she doesn’t know what kind of play she is in. Not that she’s to blame: days later, I’m not really sure I know either.