Navigating Broadway Through 3D Waters

According to popular legend, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the state of Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth – the mythical spring said to promise longevity to anyone who drinks its waters.  Tony Award-nominated director Kenny Leon appears to have found the secret for endurance on Broadway – choose to work with impeccable playwrights and extraordinary actors.  When asked about his selection processes on choosing which plays he will work with, Leon states, “When I choose a project to spend time with, I first have to make sure that it will make a contribution to the world.  At one time, in my career I had to say yes to anything and now I ask myself, ‘Is me doing this project going to make a difference?  Is it going to touch people’s lives?’ I pray on it and wait for the answer to come back.  Then I usually move forward with it knowing that it’s not what the critics say about it, it’s what the people say about it.”

Leon definitely has the ear of the people and the critics.  Early this fall Leon’s brilliance was seen on Broadway when playwright Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop brought new meaning to the term British Invasion.  After having a successful run on London’s West End, the play that provides a fictional account of the night before Dr. King’s assassination is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the lead roles and Kenny Leon as director.  The play has been a hit with critics and audiences alike.  One might have found the notion of tackling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as subject matter for a stage production an insurmountable task, but Katori, Leon, Jackson and Bassett wove a new stitch in the tapestry of Dr. King’s legacy with out blemishing the fabric of the man or his dream.  “Originally when I received the offer to do [The Mountaintop] my first thought was I didn’t want to do anything that was destructive of the iconic nature of Dr. King.  My agent said it’s about Dr. King and a sexy maid, and it’s like wait a minute,” he says.  “Then I said to myself, if it’s a fictitious account it might work, but if it’s trying to be realistic then that may not work.  Then when I read the script, what really convinced me was how I felt at the end.  At the end of the script I knew Dr. King was a man who loved his family, who loved his wife, who loved his country and who loved God and those were the things that brought me to it because those were the things that uplifted Dr. King.   And Katori had a way of making this man be human but at the same time showing those values that made him great.”

This Thanksgiving, Leon will have two plays on the Great White Way.  Stick Fly began previews November 18, and has a scheduled opening date for December 8.  Written by Lydia R. Diamond and produced by Alycia Keys, the play stars Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tracie Thoms, Mekhi Phifer, Dule Hill, Rosie Benton and Condola Rashad and is about a family that comes to terms with themselves one weekend on Martha’s Vineyard.  Right after The Mountaintop debuted on Broadway, Leon was hard at work at the Cort Theatre helping to bring this script to life.  “Stick Fly is such a great project because Lydia Diamond is such a great writer,” he says.  She is an intelligent writer and she’s very funny.” 

Leon is widely known as one of the foremost African American directors, with the majority of his acclaim coming from the projects he has done on stage.  And it seems to me that Leon has charted a course that keeps him loyal to the theater, despite the more lucrative mediums of television and film.  “I have a T-shirt that says, ‘Film is art, theatre is life, television is furniture.’ That sort of summarizes it for me,” he affirms.  “I love television and I love film; they all have there ups and downs and pros and cons.  I’m getting ready to do a Lifetime movie for cable and I’m very excited about it.  We’re going to be able to reach a millions of people with that story.  In the theater you’re only able to reach a thousand people per night.  It is the ultimate 3D experience.  You don’t have to put on any funny looking glasses, you can just sit there and you can see Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett or Denzel Washington.  It’s the closest thing to life that we have.”

With all the successes and accolades that Leon has achieved, one thing has eluded him – a Tony win for Best Direction in a Play.  I wondered if not bringing home a Tony still mattered to him.  “It does, but you keep going you know,” he says.  In certain ways, a director is similar to an explorer.  A director is given a map – the script and is told to take it, get a crew together, go off and make a great discovery.  Kenny Leon has allowed his innate sense of understanding the beauty and frailty of human nature to guide him in participating in productions that are great discoveries to theatergoers each night.  In 2012, Leon promises to keep the tradition of surprising himself and his fans going by continuing to work with meaningful projects.  I am sure any project he works with will feature Kenny Leon’s ability to bring the soul out of the work and rejuvenate the soul of the audience in the process.

Photos:  Wire Image and

The Mountaintop, MLK Comes To Broadway

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” – The fatidic final words of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech given April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, in Memphis, Tennessee.   After his riveting oration, Dr. King went back to the Lorraine Motel where he remained through the night.  The next day the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the motel.  These are the facts, but the events that transpired in room 306, often referred to as “the King-Abernathy Suite,” following King’s last speech has been the subject of debate.   Forty-three years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and on the eve of the official dedication of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C., Broadway revisits King’s assassination in The Mountaintop.

The Mountaintop is the opus of playwright Katori Hall and takes a poetic look at crowning hours of King’s life before he made the transition from civil rights leader to martyr.  The production premiered in London in 2009, first playing at Theatre503 then transferring to Trafalgar Studios and featured British actors David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs in the lead roles.  The play received positive reviews, won the Olivier Best New Play Award and was nominated for Whatsonstage Awards and Most Promising Playwright in the Evening Standard Awards.  The Mountaintop has crossed overseas.  It made its official Broadway debut at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, located at 242 West 45th Street, on October 13 and stars Hollywood luminaries Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

With an emotional score composed by Grammy Award-winning jazz maestro Branford Marsalis, The Mountaintop is set entirely in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the evening of April 3, 1968 and opens with Dr. King (Samuel L. Jackson) returning to his room, escaping from a serious storm howling outside.  As he settles in, waiting for Reverend Ralph Abernathy to return with a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, he calls his wife, whom he calls Corrie, toils over a speech he intends to recite and orders a cup of coffee.  At his door arrives Camae (Bassett), a seemingly star-struck motel maid with his java.  What follows is a blistering, vivid, tender tête-à-tête that reveals Dr. King’s insecurities, mortality and his desires for the world.

Playwright Katori Hall manufactured a gem of a script, in my opinion is it is nearly flawless. She chips away at the mammoth, mythic figure that Dr. King was in life and in death and exposes him as a man with myriad emotions and frailties.  So many times we place figures like the late Dr. King on a pedestal and transform, without their consent, into demigods.  We dismiss humanistic qualities and dare anyone to paint a picture that is less than perfect. Really, who would have the audacity to depict Martin Luther King Jr. as a man that takes whiskey in his coffee, chain smokes Pall Malls, uses the N-word, engages in pillow fights, is riddled with fear and has smelly feet to boot.  Katori Hall had the balls to do it and did so in exquisite fashion by adding the necessary tints that changed the portrait of Dr. King from a supernatural civil rights hero into a man with the extraordinary ability to rise above his foibles to fulfill his destiny.  Impresario Kenny Leon hot streak on Broadway continues.  His ability to sniff out projects that are rich with complex characters coupled with the touches of genius he brings to an already beautifully crafted story should garner him another Tony nomination.  He is steadily showing himself to be one of the best directors on Broadway.

The two person cast of Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett is sublime.  In fact, Jackson could not have picked a better role in which to make his Broadway debut.  There is no doubt that Samuel Jackson is one of the best character actors in the business.  He possesses the knack to morph himself into a government agent, Jedi knight and crackhead and do so with the ability to bring forth the humanity in the character, uncovering their hidden truths and making them relatable to the audience.  There was no man better suited to show Martin Luther King the man than Samuel L. Jackson.  He utilized all of his ability in his portrayl of MLK and his depiction is no less than glorious.  Angela Bassett does not need house lights; her star power can illuminate the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre all on its own.  Her portrayl of the drinking, cussing, fascinating Camae scorches the stage – she is The Mountaintop.  Bassett is a force whose presence can only truly be experienced watching her on stage.  If you thought she was something in a movie theater, wait until you see her live.  Together she and Jackson conjure magnetic energy that surges through the audience, captivating them from the rise of the curtain to its fall. 

The Mountaintop is a phenomenal addition to the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.  It has tremendous heart and the heart and soul of each person involved in the play is evident in this production.  Perhaps, the best testament to The Mountaintop’s ability to capture the spirit of Dr. King was evident in the audience filled with people of different hues and age groups.  I attend Broadway shows very often and by far this was most diverse audience I have witnessed this season.  Looking at the audience made me recognize that although we still have a ways to go before Dr. King’s dream is truly realized, we are closer to the Promised Land than we have ever been and if each of us absorbs the production’s true message, we will not have far to go.

Photos: Joan Marcus and Bruce Glikas