A new Broadway drama with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett recalls a fateful time—and raises fresh questions about the progress of African-Americans.

 

Samuel l. Jackson doesn’t mince words when sharing his thoughts on the current state of African-American affairs. He isn’t happy. More to the point, he’s convinced the man he’s set to portray on Broadway come October wouldn’t be, either. In his Broadway debut, Jackson will step into the shoes of the late Martin Luther King Jr. for The Mountaintop, a fictional account of the last 24 hours of King’s life.

The play, which also stars Angela Bassett, explores the emotions, regrets, and fears of the civil-rights leader on the night before he will be shot to death on a Memphis motel balcony. An encounter with a mysterious chambermaid (Bassett) forces him to confront his legacy in ways most could never imagine. Written by Katori Hall, The Mountaintop debuted on London stages in 2009 to rave reviews. The script offers a shocking twist to King’s last day, while also providing two A-list actors a chance to mesmerize audiences with a haunting story of a man facing his own mortality.

In a midtown New York theater last week, the 62-year-old Jackson sat with Bassett while they spoke candidly about revisiting the past through King’s eyes and whether the current plight of African-Americans is veering toward the point of no return. Jackson says he cleared his film sched-ule so he could appear in a role that humanizes the larger-than-life figure—and possibly return the spotlight to the struggle itself.

“I read this play and I liked what it had to say about the man and where he was at that point in his life,” Jackson says. “It showed Dr. King’s heart and vulnerability and how much he cared about the movement in ways I’d never seen before, and most people haven’t, either. That’s what you hope people will take away from it when they see The Mountaintop. Just how important it all was to him, to his last breath.”

Bassett plays a controversial role, and her character’s true agenda is a secret until the middle of the play, so the audience is surprised when it learns what and who she actually is. Unlike Jackson, who spent time studying King’s tone and vocal range, Bassett had no real-life inspiration. “Like Sam, I was drawn into this play because it shows Dr. King’s humanity and is a chance to discuss some meaningful issues about where we were then and now,” says Bassett. “And it’s a chance to commune with the audience.”

The play doesn’t just surprise—it also has the potential to offend with its bold use of the N word, profanity, and subtle references to King’s alleged extramarital affairs. Bernice King, the youngest of his four children, says that while she loves the overall message of the play, which is directed by Kenny Leon, she isn’t fond of the “fictional” innuendo or colorful language.

“I just don’t think Daddy spoke that way,” says King, who was 5 years old when her father was assassinated. “I shared that with the director after reading the play. But I do feel the overall message of The Mountaintop is one that will resonate with audiences long after they leave the theater.”

With the upcoming unveiling of a $120 million King memorial on the National Mall in Washington—postponed because of Hurricane Irene—some of King’s family and friends wonder if the renewed interest in his life and legacy will spark a resurgence of hope in the African-American community as well.

It would be a welcome change. The era that ushered in the first black president has also introduced the highest levels of unemployment and poverty for African-Americans in more than 20 years. Both conditions threaten to destroy the very existence of the black middle class, while furthering demolishing the already depleted inner city.

“More hope for our community would be just the right outcome of this moment,” says Bernice King. “Daddy would be so dismayed with many of the things happening right now. We’ve lost our way as a people. We were meant to live at a higher standard, and we’re not doing that.”

Jackson would like there to be a new appreciation for the civil-rights struggle, but he says he’s not at all convinced it will happen, given the current state of frustration and apathy running through the African-American community. He adds that the rather hefty cost of a Broadway ticket might not help either.

“You need money to come to a show like this. Do the people who need to come and learn something about Dr. King have the money to come to Broadway? Probably not,” he asks and answers without missing a beat. “And what do kids today know about Dr. King other than he had a dream? I’m a child of segregation. I lived this, and I know what the fight was for. The generations after, not so much. No one is teaching them anything—even at home.”

hough many landmark civil-rights battles hinged on the right to an equal education, in 2011 only 47 percent of African-American males graduated from high school. Jackson points to his own childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he grew up the only child of a factory worker. African-American teachers identified what a child was capable of achieving early on, then strategically devised plans to help him or her get there.

“Back then those black teachers knew who would be able to speak for a living, who was going to be curling hair, and who was going to be changing a tire,” says Jackson. “Teachers would come by the house to tell your mama and daddy what they needed to do for you. My teacher would have me reading Shakespeare, while the boy next to me was learning how to fill out a job application. They kept it very real. That’s not happening today.”

Educational disadvantages top the list of woes for African-Americans, but so do staggering poverty rates. In 2009, 25.8 percent of African-Americans lived below the poverty level, compared with 9.4 percent of white Americans. Combine those numbers with a nearly 17 percent unemployment rate that’s remained steady for years, and King’s dream of racial equality and justice continues to be a distant memory.

“As we celebrate events that recognize Dr. King’s impact and legacy, we’re filled with both hope and hopelessness,” says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of King’s most prominent foot soldiers. “We’re living in a time where many people on the top of the boat are OK with letting those at the bottom simply drown. They will fight the captain if he tries to stop the water from coming in below. It’s all about the people on top staying dry. That was not Dr. King’s vision. He would consider these times very bittersweet.”

Bernice King says she continues to struggle with ways to resolve the same issues her father died fighting for, but sees troubling attitudes among a younger generation too far removed from the dream and the dreamer. “Those who thought we as a country were a lot further along in race relations got a rude awakening with President Obama in office,” she says. “He won, but they’ve fought him on everything. Race is still there.”

The election of an African-American president wouldn’t have surprised her father a bit, says King. In fact, he predicted it would occur at least a decade earlier.

“Daddy always knew we’d get a black president,” says King. “He was just a little off on the timing.”

 

Written on August 30th, 2011 , Media

Perennially underrepresented, female playwrights of color are taking center stage this season. Among the most prominent is Katori Hall, whose The Mountaintop stars Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Bassett as a mysterious visitor to King’s Memphis hotel on the night before his assassination

 

We don’t get very many historical dramas these days, but it in the past few years, there have been at least three show about Dr. King: The Good Negro, The Conscientious Objector, The/King/Operetta. What draws playwrights to him?
As a historical figure, King has been shrouded in so much myth that it’s intriguing to try to make him flesh and blood. I can only speak for myself, but when I was growing up in Memphis—and having the Martin Luther King holiday and the moment of pause on April 4th—he was just a statue to me. I wanted to make him a little bit more real to me as a human being. So [in The Mountaintop] we see him afraid; we see him dealing with daily death threats and what that does to a person’s soul. We see him smoking because he’s so stressed out—and that’s a historical fact. There is a video in the National Civil Rights Museum where Rev. Billy Kyles talks about how Dr. King had a cigarette in his hand when he was shot, and that Kyles actually took the cigarette out of his hand because he didn’t want the kids to know that their father smoked.

So many statements that we associate with King or other public figures are from crafted speeches. So one challenge is, how do they sound when they’re not…?
…When they’re not performing, when they’re not a pastor? That’s something I struggle with, because I was adamant that I wasn’t going to use one lick of what he had said in his speeches: Behind the scenes, he had to talk in a totally different way. Because I know that I do. I pull the switch all the time. As a black woman who grows up in a predominantly white neighborhood, you learn how to perform a “good” version of yourself. And then when you’re with your homegirls, you’re saying all kinds of stuff that sounds all kinds of crazy, but you understand each other because you’re speaking the way that you’re comfortable with.  Some people call it the “black vernacular”; I just call it talkin’. [Laughs] So I’m still struggling with how to present myself to the world. And I took all of that into consideration and applied it to what think that he, as a character in a play, might have been going through. Because obviously you’re inspired by the historical facts, but you have to take a leap and make it drama.

There’s nothing worse than those Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations plays.
Exactly! So, how did this person really talk? And wouldn’t it be cool if he just did not sound the way that you would expect? I think that’s another thing that’s upending about the play: that an actor like Samuel L. Jackson, who is known for things like Pulp Fiction and Snakes on a Plane, can come into this role and fully embody it. Because it’s not the “I have a dream” King. It’s a King that is radical. It’s a King that, when he’s frustrated, curses sometimes. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, I don’t think so. Other people may have a problem with it. [Laughs]

Do heroes need their myths?
We expect our leaders to be godlike. But I feel that when people try to sanctify leadership, it puts it out of the realm of regular people. And that’s where the greatest leaders come from—from the people. We’re all leaders; we all can be leaders. We all can be Kings.

The Mountaintop begins previews Sept 22 and opens Oct 13 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (telecharge.com). $75–$130.

Written on August 29th, 2011 , Media

Samuel L. Jackson, action-hero badass and child of the segregated South, plays Martin Luther King Jr. on Broadway – By David Keeps

(Photo: Marc Baptiste)

No one says motherfucker quite like Samuel Leroy Jackson. He deployed that expletive in tones Shakespearean and streetwise throughout Pulp Fiction. And today, there are at least half a dozen places on the web where Jackson’s voice will “motherfucker” you up with a click; in real life, he uses the term with impunity. Especially when it comes to politics. Here, for instance, are his thoughts on Obama 2012: “Being president is one of those fucked-up jobs. You hope you can figure some shit out and deal with all these hardheaded mother fuckers and get reelected. Then you can go in and tell motherfuckers to kiss your ass and do what the fuck I say, or I will fuck you up. That’s how you get shit done. That’s the audacity of hope.”

Jackson has been in more than 100 movies. “I’ve stopped counting,” he says, grinning, settled into a green semi- circular booth in the garden of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, sipping lemonade from a straw. Among his African-American actor peers, he is unique. Able to play both virtuous and villainous with the badass swagger of seventies blaxploitation heroes, he brings reliable cool—Samuel L. Jackson–ness—to every role, in the way that Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, and Walken have.

Having portrayed crackheads, cops, criminals, Shaft, a Jedi, and Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury onscreen and played God and the narrator of Go the Fuck to Sleep for audiobooks, Jackson is returning to the New York stage for the first time in two decades this fall, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which won the 2010 Olivier Award (Britain’s Tony) for Best New Play.  The drama is set on April 3, 1968, the night before King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. “The King I am showing just came in from delivering the ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech,” says Jackson. The reverend is very tired, and the only other actor onstage is Jackson’s longtime friend Angela Bassett, who plays Camae, a hotel employee delivering room service who stays to talk. “He’s the guy alone in a hotel room talking to a woman. He’s the man as a man, not as a martyr or ideologue. He just happened to be the guy who wasn’t afraid to stand up for the right idea. But outside of that, he was as fragile and as flawed as anyone.”

Jackson, who turns 63 this year, grew up in segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I understand the attitudes of the time because I was part of it,” he says matter-of-factly, crunching a flatbread from a basket the waiter brings over. “There were certain things we could not do and places we could not go. And it was life-threatening to engage certain members of society about what was going on.” There was an early lesson when he was 5 and wolf- whistled at a white girl: “My mom, aunt, and grandmother beat me for reckless eyeballing.” He remembers going to neighbors’ houses in those days and seeing three pictures on the wall: Kennedy, King, and Jesus. He frequented the two blacks-only movie houses, always puzzled about why Sidney Poitier died even when he had the jump on someone.  His father wasn’t around, but as a child, he’d accompany his grandfather to do maintenance work in office buildings. “You shuffled to the side when a white person came by. I’d stand there and look them in the eye, and they might say I was a little uppity,” says the actor. (Which is why he named his production company Uppity Films.) “People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.”

His family was determined for him to move ahead. “My job was going to school and having a better life. And I had to make good grades to have any peace.” For every four comic books he read, he had to read a classic like Moby-Dick. At school, Jackson played several instruments in the band and ran track. Today he plays a lot of golf.

He enrolled at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, avoiding the Vietnam War. There he was “a hippie militant” who listened to Jimi Hendrix, dropped acid, and got booted out for holding the board of trustees—including King’s father—locked in a campus building. “He complained of chest pains, so we let him out of there so we wouldn’t be accused of murder,” Jackson says, chuckling at the memory.

After reinstatement and graduation, he and his future wife, LaTanya Richardson, did repertory and children’s theater and toured with a company called Black Image. Jackson leans forward for this story, his resonant voice punctuating all the right beats. “We did guerrilla street hate-whitey theater. We had drummers, and we’d yell, ‘Die, niggers, so black folk can take over,’ and then we’d run through the audience and scream in white people’s faces. And they’d say”—he flips a vocal switch and becomes an aging Valley girl—“ ‘Oh my God, this is so great!’ ”

Jackson and Richardson moved to a friend’s Greenwich Village place in 1976. Back then, the theater scene was vibrant and work was abundant. So were alcohol and drugs on the “no-man’s-land part of Times Square, with transvestite hookers and kung fu movie theaters,” he says. “When I was doing a show, I would go to Times Square at eleven in the morning, buy a quart of beer, a nickel-bag of weed, and see three movies for a dollar until it was time to go to the theater,” he recalls. (That’s also how he got hooked on Asian films. He now owns nearly 3,000.)

The party came to a crashing halt in 1990. After originating the role of Boy Willie in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Jackson saw the part go to Charles S. Dutton for the Broadway run. Jackson was the embittered understudy. “It’s kind of what put me in rehab. I was sitting on the back steps every night, smoking crack and drinking,” he recalls. “I never took just one hit of nothing. I always did it till it was gone, and then I got some more.” Two weeks after getting clean, he played a crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, the role that made him a star. “It wasn’t until I let go of the idea of the brass ring that it showed up, and fortunately for me, it coincided with getting clean.” He pauses. After all these years, he still stops in to meetings. “As long as I am sober, I’ll be on top; if not, I’ll be on the bottom,” he says, slipping into the cadence of Jules Winn field, his scripture-citing Pulp Fiction character. “Which,” he asks himself menacingly, “do you prefer?”

But back to King. Jackson remembers exactly where he was when he was killed. “It was campus movie night—John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, probably one of the worst movies ever made,” Jackson recalls. “In the middle of the movie, this guy came in and said, ‘Dr. King is dead.’ We all filed out to the middle of the street, and people were gathering, and sure enough, someone threw a brick through a store window, and I was standing there thinking, This is not what we should be doing.” The following day, he flew to Memphis and marched in protest. The day after that, he put on a black suit and volunteered to be an usher at the funeral.

Jackson believes that if King were alive today, he’d be an advocate of immigrant and gay rights and would bemoan the death of American manufacturing and the middle class. “We’ve come a long way in our thinking,” Jackson states, “but also in our moral decay. I can’t imagine Dr. King watching the Real Housewivesor Jersey Shore.” Watching TV, Jackson sometimes feels cultural despair. “I was watching the BET Awards, and I guess they’re saying how awesome it is that all these young men have this wonderful underwear they can show to the world because everybody’s jeans are hanging off their ass.” He stops himself short: “That’s a sign of getting old,” Jackson says, shaking his head ruefully. “Asking, ‘Why do they dress like that?’ ”

Jackson hopes that, even if their jeans are baggy, when young people see The Mountaintop they will “find out that King is more than just a speech. He made the ultimate sacrifice. Guys like him, like Gandhi and Jesus, they stood up for something and got killed for it. But hopefully the movement carries on. Like that guy who killed those kids in Norway. Hopefully all the kids that survived that will go out and recruit some more kids and show these people that you can’t kill us—and this movement—off. It’s greater than us and greater than you. It’s what’s right.”

Sometimes, however, Jackson believes that you have to do something that might seem wrong to show people what’s right. Next year, he will reunite with Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained,a mash-up of Western and slave drama. “I play Stephen, the quintessential faithful house nigger,” he says, laughing. “I will go from being the most revered black man in America to being the most hated cinematic Negro in the history of film.” Ain’t that a motherfucker?

 

 

 

Written on August 23rd, 2011 , Media

 

Katori Hall, above, in Red Square in Moscow. A staged reading of “The Mountaintop,” her play about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was performed by Elizaveta Martinez Cardenas, top right, and Grigory Syatwinda. Photo by Anastasia Korotich

I HAD vowed never to come back. But here Mother Russia was calling me to Moscow, my former stomping ground, for an extraordinary opportunity: to hear my Broadway-bound play “The Mountaintop” translated into Russian for a public reading last March as part of a prestigious theater festival. How could I turn it down?

A reading of “The Mountaintop,” and discussion about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., provided a forum for looking at issues in Russia.

Unlike films, which can be easily disseminated worldwide via DVDs and the Internet, plays struggle to find an international audience. Language is one barrier. It is expensive to give plays subtitles, especially for a short run, so most new dramas rarely cross the transcontinental bridge.

But there is a movement under way. The Lark Play Development Center, in New York, has aided the translation of plays by writers in some 48 countries. A two-way bridge to Russia has just been completed. The Lark has housed Russian playwrights and producers in New York; thanks to the center and a United States government project, four American scripts would be translated into Russian as part of the exchange. “The Mountaintop” — which had already been staged to acclaim in London, winning the 2010 Olivier award as best play — would be the first of them.

A reading of “The Mountaintop,” and discussion about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., provided a forum for looking at issues in Russia.

On Broadway, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett are to play the leads, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a maid in a Memphis motel, starting Sept. 22. But how would we do it in a country where blacks are estimated to be a half percent or less out of a population of 138.7 million?

Serendipity always rewards the prepared.

My first trip to Russia came in 2004, when I was a fledgling actor at the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University, where all first-year students were required to learn Russian and to study at the Moscow Art Theater School. And in 2010 I had reached out to my friend (and Russian translator) Tatyana Khaikin, who brought my play to Konstantin Raikin, the artistic director of Satirikon, a theater company in Moscow.

“I thought it would be cool to be the first country in the world to translate ‘The Mountaintop,’ considering Russia’s reputation on questions of race and color,” Ms. Khaikin said. “I also was very excited about giving the two Russian actors of color a chance to play African-Americans.”

Mr. Raikin had been searching for a play specifically for two actors in his company, Grigory Syatwinda and Elizaveta Martinez Cardenas. The two happen to be the only black actors working in repertory theater in all of Moscow, Satirikon being the first company to employ nontraditional casting.

The stars had aligned, and I was left sharpening my Russian. Kak dela? (How are you?) Priviet! (Hello!) And my personal favorite: Ya hachu moloko. (I would like some milk.) But my own memories of Moscow replayed in my mind, and friends and family expressed concern: “I’m worried about you. It’s not safe for you there.”

No warnings, or even the subtle experiences with racism during my childhood in Memphis, could have prepared me for Moscow during that first visit. Swastikas were routinely tattooed outside our dormitory; we black students were urged to stay inside on Hitler’s birthday. The rise of neo-Nazism was evident; a black student had been ambushed by skinheads in front of police officers, who refused to help.

Perhaps it was because of my previous visit that I felt even more determined that a play about Dr. King, a man who preached about a colorblind world, would resonate loudly in the white, snowy streets of Russia. I was on a mission.

A Russian King

At our first rehearsal we all sat around a table with quaint porcelain teacups in our hands. A copy of my script lay before me, but I sounded out the Cyrillic to no avail. My tongue had forgotten. “It was a great challenge to translate your play,” Ms. Khaikin said, “because the language is so specific to the South, and the expressions that the characters use are so vivid and so true to that dialect. To make it alive in Russian was very hard.”

Yet because the actors didn’t have a preconceived notion of Dr. King or Southern Americans, they were fearless in their attack of the text. They concentrated more on the action that came forward in the dialogue, and a playful volley of Russian words flew back and forth, rattling the teacups on the rehearsal table.

When I told the story about my inspiration for the piece, my clipped mid-Southern dialect tumbled from my mouth.

“We can hear the cadence and rhythm when Katori speaks,” Dmitry Volkostrelov, the director of the reading, said. “It’s like a kind of music.”

After our second rehearsal the group ate at a famous Georgian restaurant. Pictures of Mike Tyson and Will Smith and other celebrities who had been there lined the walls. I sat across from our two actors, who were more interested in their cigarettes than in the delicious slabs of meat before us. At 5 foot 4 (many people don’t know that Dr. King was short) and with kind eyes, Mr. Syatwinda, 38, would be the perfect King, I thought. With a sly smile he told me of his background.

His mother, a Russian, and his father, a native of Zambia, met while at university in Ukraine. Born in what was then the Soviet Union, he lived as a very young child in Zambia, where he spoke English, but soon moved to Siberia, where he grew up. As the only “brown boy” he received a lot of attention. “Every time I would get on a bus, everyone would just shut up,” he said.

Perhaps it is no wonder that he would become an actor. But it was not without challenges. When Mr. Syatwinda auditioned for the Moscow Art Theater School in the late 1980s, the head of the program told him to go into cinema because “there was nothing in the repertory for me,” he said. He was accepted into another reputable acting school, and upon graduation Mr. Raikin — a graduate of the same school — approached him to join Satirikon, where he experienced a watershed moment.

“When I played Fortinbras in Hamlet, and Raikin said I had a king’s face, that’s when I knew I could play anything,” he said.

Ms. Martinez Cardenas was born to a Russian mother and a Mexican father. She too was approached by Mr. Raikin soon after graduation, and both have played several parts in the company’s repertory. But the company’s colorblind casting has raised some eyebrows. “When the curtain comes up on me and I am onstage, there is a lot of whispering and shuffling in the seats,” she said. “But it soon subsides.”

From Memphis to Moscow

I rushed into the theater fresh from a television interview and was surprised to see a bare-bones set, not just the music stands I was used to at American play readings. There was a table, a telephone and a television screen filled with Dr. King’s face, expectant and wondering. A lot had been achieved in only three days of rehearsal, and it was time for the show to begin. I sat in the last seat in the corner of the house, the best vantage point to gauge the audience’s experience.

Young and old, artists and babushkas all sat on the pewlike seats and prepared to hear a story about an American legend.

Lights up. A man entered the stage, coughing and demanding his friend buy him a pack of Pall Malls. He then went to the restroom upstage left, and the sound of urination filled the space. Laughter from the audience followed. It was evident from the start: The crowd was not watching a myth; they were watching a man.

In just a reading Mr. Syatwinda and Ms. Martinez Cardenas brought Dr. King back from the dead for an hour and a half. We were not in Moscow but in Memphis, and they filled the room with smoke and Russian words. In a testament to the translation, the audience laughed at the same moments English-speaking audiences had laughed. They sniffled at the same times and clapped just as loudly. When the house lights came up the response was overwhelming for the actors, and for me.

At the talkback Elena Kolvaskaya, one of the coordinators of the festival, asked the audience if they understood everything, especially certain American historical references.

“Why does everyone think that the Russian audience is stupid?” asked Maxim Kurochkin, a Russian playwright who has also worked with the Lark. “We don’t need everything explained to us. A play will be understood.” Elena Gremina, another Russian playwright and a founder of Theatre Doc in Moscow, dedicated to documentary theater, was “pulled away at the end because I felt that this was more for America and not Russians,” she said. “There was a lot of pathos. America might have been able to solve their problems, but we in Russia have not.” (She had earlier pointed out that four young Chechen men had been killed in a riot last December.)

I promptly explained that America still experiences flashes of regression today, to which several Russian students expressed surprise. I told the crowd, “We’re more similar than you think.”

Like most playwrights I hate talkbacks with a passion that can burn a hole through hell. But it was at that moment that I saw the bridge truly connect. A play created in America had made a safe space where Russians could honestly address political and social challenges in their society. To see members of this audience examine themselves and their country by looking at a man struggling with the question of equality in a moldy motel room in Memphis long ago was a welcome new memory to replace my dark ones from 2004. I had promised never to return, but this was a promise meant to be broken.

 

Written on August 19th, 2011 , Media
Katori Hall on Twitter