What a night on Broadway: “The Mountaintop” opened, with incendiary performances from Samuel L. Jackson respectively as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett as a maid (or it seems) in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel on the eve of Dr. King’s assassination. It’s been 20 years since Jackson was on Broadway (“The Piano Lesson”), 23 for Bassett (“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”).
The audience was filled with big names, more than I’ve seen turn out at once for a Broadway play opening.
Everyone from Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz (and Alicia’s great mom, Terria Joseph) to sports giants like Magic Johnson and Julius Erving to Harry Belafonte to Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee (who gets a shout out in the play), Anthony Mackie, Liz Smith, Iris Love, sisters Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, Ahmad Rashad (ex of Phylicia), Mary Alice, Sam Rockwell, Star Jones, Gayle King, Dick Cavett, producer Marty Bregman and bw Cornelia, Jimmy and Margo Nederlander, the Shuberts’ Phil Smith, producer Judy Gordon, writer Joan Juliet Buck, actor Billy Magnussen, and the stars’ spouses–LaTanya Richardson and Courtney B. Vance.
Lead producer Jean Doumanian should be proud bringing “The Mountaintop” to Broadway–it’s a terrific new play by a young black playwright named Katori Hall. Broadway is desperate for new blood; this is it. And Hall’s play, while not perfect, is certainly strong with a great plot twist and a knock out ending directed by Kenny Leon.
Bassett’s character is totally invented from fiction, and so she has greater latitude something original and wild. She is amazing, and must be seen. Jackson has the harder task–he’s playing one of the great icons of history, politics, and culture. Long a film favorite, Jackson pulls off his first stage work in years aplomb. He also has MLK’s hairline. “Look,” he showed me at the after party, “It’s a wig. I am bald under here.” He lifted his signature Kangol cap. Might he have played MLK with a Kangol? “I thought about it,” he said with a laugh.