Last night I was thrilled to go see The Mountaintop, the highly acclaimed play about Martin Luther King's last night, before his assassination on April 4th, 1968.
I was filled with excitement, merely because I was sitting in a room and watching two amazing actors, Samuel Jackson and Angela Basset, in a very intimate setting, as the theatre was not very large. Samuel Jackson made a fabulous MLK, pacing around his motel room in Memphis, TN, which was literally modeled on room 306, where he spent his last nights, at The Lorraine Motel.
The first scene has MLK burst into the motel room, hacking away, and admonishing a friend outside to buy him Pall Mall cigarettes, and no other brand. He then walks in to his bathroom, and we understand that he is peeing. He then takes off his shoes, visibly exhausted from marching, after having made his infamous Mountaintop speech. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0FiCxZKuv8&noredirect=1.
As he goes through these motions, he begins working on a new speech about the disintegration of America due to its greed. A speech we know, as spectators, that we will never hear him make. We all know we are witnessing MLK's last moments.
He then sniffs his shoes, and screams with disgust that they stink. And so goes this play, a combination of humanism and solemnity, magical realism and hard sad truth. We learn that MLK Jr was a great man, with a gentle and forgiving heart, but a man nonetheless, with a weakness for beautiful women, and cigarettes and alcohol. Despite all this, these human traits do not take away from our admiration for him. We all know, as we watch him try to seduce a hotel maid, that he is a great man no matter what.
The hotel maid bursts into his room shortly after his entrance, with a tray of coffee, her own personal stash of Pall Malls, and a liquor flask. She is the beautiful Angela Basset, who represents all the vices a man may be attracted to. Angela Basset's energy is almost uncontainable, and she takes over the scene. She is very excited to meet the incredible Rev MLK, but she also knows the power she casts over him. He tries to seduce her, and they share cigarettes, joke and ideas. He asks her what speech she would make if she were him, and as she reverently wears his jacket and stands up on his bed to make her speech, she is full of an energy that MLK seems to be losing. She is agressive in her words, and speaks of fighting for her rights, not simply marching. MLK likens her to the late Malcolm X, and warns her about violence as a means to achieving peace and change.
I will not go further into details, as the story moves from realism into the realm of magical and esoteric. When this switch occurs, the mood of the play swings from humor to sadness, regret and MLK's fear that he has not accomplished all that he was set to do. He agonizes over the fact that so much more needs to be done. But the hotel maid reassures him to "pass the baton".
It is indeed difficult to see a great man go before his time. He himself seems to know he was one of a kind. But the last images that appears before us in The Mountaintop are of all the great people that MLKenabled and influenced, ending of course with our President Obama. I walked out of the play with these very thoughts: if anybody believes Obama is weak and didn't pull through with his promises, the mere fact that he ascended to presidency as an African American man is change enough.
What this play reminds us, is that nobody is perfect. And we don't necessarily have the time to do all the great things we've set out to do. MLK was unfortunately murdered. Obama may only have this presidency. But these men have set the stage to pass the baton to future agents of change, and most importantly they have planted the seed in the next generation to believe that anything can be possible.