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Moutaintop on Broadway

Posted by Susan Watson Turner on October 8, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Recognizing a Dream

Professor Susan Watson Turner – Lehman College - CUNY

A feature article on Mountaintop by Katori Hall

October 6, 2011 – New York City


On Tuesday evening I was in the audience for a preview performance of Mountaintop starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. The above the titled performers have bravely taken on this Broadway challenge. This star powered due—is it seems the requisite to bringing --even contemplating producing the most difficult genre known to the Broadway stage—the Black drama—a serious Black drama at that! The production team’s courage to not only take on this serious Black drama but also the iconoclastic image of Dr. Martin Luther King is worthy of high praise. The traditional one dimensional image most of us have and hold fiercely of Dr. King is at once shattered as Mr. Jackson and Ms. Bassett, aided by the highly literate script provided by Katori Hall, relive Dr. King’s last day on earth.

On so many levels this production is the recognition of a dream. On the surface Dr. King’s dream of being judged by the content of your character—not the color of your skin has become more of a reality than not—as our world swiftly becomes an international palette of color, race and religion. As well while reading the program notes, I discovered that for Mr. Jackson, this production marks his Broadway debut—after the extensive, rich and rocky life he has had as Black American artist this seems unbelievable. Finally, on so many levels those of us who professionally grew up in the shadow of the ‘great white way’ quietly hoped for the day we would see this type of work on Broadway.

My professional journey collided with Mr. Jackson’s, (Sam, as he was known then) when we dodged puddles from the leaky roof over Theatre Four’s backstage. (The home of the Negro Ensemble Company at the time.) My days as company manager often involved bouts of kicking the furnace—while the actors huddled around small heaters backstage to deliver award-winning works like A Soldier’s Play for audiences sincerely seeking serious black drama. Fleetingly we dreamed of moving work that moved us to an audience like the one that surrounded me on Tuesday night at the Jacobs Theatre. I somehow felt we all had arrived this night—with this play—Mr. Jackson on the Broadway stage—me in house seats down the aisle for Cedric the Entertainer!

As the stark—simple—unadorned hotel room setting is revealed the air was taunt with expectation, anticipation and angst. Will this play be one that makes us huddle anonymously on face book posting sad notes of grief over the yet again destruction of a Black heroic figure brought to earth by empathetic artistic ambition? Would this play stir controversy between the conservative opinions that the preservation of the Black historic images should remain unfettered by commercial endeavors? Would this play call to the forefront yet again the historic debate defining Black Theatre? Would the definition provided and amended over the years by Dubois, Ward and Wilson become the subject of another Henry Louis Gates essay on art—it’s creators—and it’s audience? Or worse would the play be dismissed and deemed a valiant effort—just not for Broadway?

When the setting is revealed—the stripped down dank hotel room delivers us imperceptibly to a twilight zone realm—and when the thunder cues so carefully placed sound more like gun shots than thunderstorms—the weight of this evening hovers over the audience and this room becomes one we’d all like to escape. Yet the electric energy of Ms. Bassett and the revealed manhood of Michael Martin King combine to produced an uncontrollable involuntary standing ovation—the highest tribute to the life and sacrifice of Dr. King and the Mountaintop artistic team.

I have accumulated years of struggle on the political and the artistic forefront of Black theatre. But I will not being to presume that I speak for the masses. As a scholar and artist I do speak for myself---Ashe to Ms. Bassett and Mr. Jackson (Sam), this play, this production truly recognizes a dream for me! The Great White Way has been at the center of controversy over the years. Black theatre has wrestled with its identity from DuBois’ initial calling for a separate Black theatre; to Douglas Turner Ward’s empowering NYT article American Theatre: For Whites Only through August Wilson’s echoing of both. But if the color white—as artists define it is the total absence of color—then possibly the American Theatre along with Dr. King has absolutely recognized a dream!

Susan Watson Turner is a Professor of Theatre at Lehman College – City University of New York.

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Reply Pamela-Faith Jackson
4:13 AM on October 10, 2011 
Nice commentary--a dream no longer deferred--for this moment in time.
Reply Pamela-Faith Jackson
7:17 PM on January 17, 2013 
Susan, the critic, Prof. Howard Stein, would be so proud of you for this---documentation of the event through black eyes---rare, poignant, and connected to the legacy.