Memphis is back on Broadway in a very different way than the recent pair of musicals with Memphis as a backdrop.
“Million Dollar Quartet” and “Memphis” are built against the backdrop of Memphis in the 1950s.
The more recent arrival on Broadway is “The Mountaintop,” a play by Katori Hall featuring actors Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
It runs there through January 22 and comes to Broadway after opening in London in 2010. The play has also been translated into Russian.
It is a play built around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in April 1968.
Earlier this year, Hall was in Memphis to talk about the play at the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of what was the Lorraine Motel.
She was on Charlie Rose on PBS this week as well with the play’s director Kenny Leon and Bassett and Jackson.
The play is a fictional encounter between King and a maid at the hotel after King arrives back at the Lorraine from making what would be his final and best known speech at Mason Temple in South Memphis. It departs from the reality of the moment as does the musical “Memphis.”
Hall is a Memphian whose mother was at King’s Mountaintop speech at Mason Temple as a teenager in 1968.
She admits to some literary license mixed with tidbits from King’s real life like King sending his wife plastic flowers.
David Gallo, the scenery and production designer, acknowledges the motel room — to this day the most anticipated part of the NCRM — had to be recreated with some degree of accuracy because of its own iconic nature.
For staging purposes, the location of the beds in the room were changed on the set. But otherwise, Gallo was scrupulous in his detail that included working with curators at the museum amassing what he termed the “world’s largest library of details of room 306” down to the upside down zero on the door of the room.
The Mountaintop is no musical. It examines a very real issue during King’s life and after his death on the motel’s balcony the evening of April 4, 1968. King’s own son, Dexter, wrote about it eloquently in his 2003 book, “Growing Up King.”
Hall told Rose she created the dialogue between the characters with a deliberate intention of departing from the King persona that has been idolized. She referred to making him “just a guy in the room.”
This is a bold departure but not unprecedented. Other attempts to recognize King as more human than idol have either been overlooked or have been very controversial.
Jackson said Bassett’s character brings up a lot of topics that King was probably well aware of but never “verbalized.” That includes the attack and criticism of his adherence to non-violent change that was never questioned more stridently than it was at the time of his death.
One of the other characters in the play is King’s partner in the movement and chosen successor, Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
Toward the end of his life, Abernathy offered a very controversial version of King’s last night in his 1989 autobiography “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down.”
He wrote of King’s sexual exploits as well as his own that night in a version widely refuted by others in King’s inner circle.
The controversy overshadowed a broader point Abernathy said he was seeking to make by telling his version of the final night. He said King was being too idolized, too deified and as a result he wasn’t a figure that Abernathy felt people discovering his life for the first time could relate to.
He and others who parted company with him over his autobiography also said King’s image in death has become easier to manipulate than it was when King was alive.