NEW YORK – In one of this fall’s most anticipated new Broadway productions, The Mountaintop, Samuel L. Jackson will play a weary traveler who strikes up a conversation with a hotel maid.
“He’s a man with a family, winding down from a tough day,” Jackson says. “He finds he can talk to her about the pressures in his life. He lets his guard down a bit. He’s a little flirtatious — you know, he’s just a guy.”
Except that Jackson’s character isn’t “just a guy.” At least, that’s not how most recall the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mountaintop, due to begin performances Sept. 22 and open Oct. 13, re-imagines the night before King’s assassination in 1968. Set in Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel, the play includes just one other role, that of Camae, a mysterious woman who delivers room service, played byAngela Bassett.
Stage veterans Jackson and Bassett are confident that the play, which earned 30-year-old author Katori Hall an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony), will deliver something much more: a deeply human portrait of an icon.
“I want people to be surprised by what they discover about Dr. King,” says Jackson, speaking with Bassett during a rehearsal break. “Katori wrote a story about a man who knows that people want to kill him, and he’s not comfortable with that. Fear is his constant companion.”
But Hall’s King opens up to Camae, “a working-class, salt-of-the-earth woman,” Bassett says. “They’re two strangers who meet and connect for this moment.”
Mountaintop is one of several imminent Broadway productions showcasing African-American playwrights and stories. Its director, Kenny Leon, who guided Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to Tonys in 2010′s revival of Fences, also will helm Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, set to open Dec. 8. Later that month, previews begin for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, a new musical-theater version of the classic folk opera.
“Race was the big issue at the time,” Jackson says of the period documented inMountaintop. But the subject of a black leader’s struggle, he adds, is extremely topical.
“Dr. King was trying to deal with inequality, with the war in Vietnam, with poverty,” Jackson notes. “Everybody was saying he took on too much. Now our president’s got the same deal — so many issues. And race still plays a part in everything that happens.”