Although the number of African American audience members has increased slightly on Broadway in the past decade, black ticketholders still make up the smallest percentage of the Great White Way's audience, just 3.4 percent, according to 2009-'10 statistics from The Broadway League.
But Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," which opened Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, may change that number this season. The show, which stars Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett as a maid at the Lorraine Motel named Camae, drew an audience that was roughly half African American at a performance a few nights before the show opened.
The diversity that "The Mountaintop" is bringing to Broadway may not come as a surprise given that Hall's play is centered on such a monumental figure in African American history. Other Broadway shows by famous black authors or about key figures in the African American experience, including "Fela!," "The Color Purple" and "Passing Strange," have also drawn larger audiences of color. But such shows — written, directed by and starring African-Americans — are also extremely rare on Broadway.
"The Mountaintop" appeals to a black audience, but it will also likely attract a wide-ranging audience because of the famous passion and commitment of its iconic leading man, and the significance of the play's date and setting: the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.
Dr. King was assassinated at 6:01 P.M. on April 4. He had traveled to Memphis to participate in a march supporting the sanitation workers' strike scheduled for April 5. His message of peace, non-violence and improved living conditions for all people, regardless of race, still resonates today, and has even turned the non-union retailer Walmart into a fan. (Walmart gave a $12.5 million letter of credit to the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C, a move that probably might have surprised Dr. King, had he lived).
In his Broadway debut, Jackson, who received a rousing round of applause the moment he stepped onstage, fills King's shoes surprisingly well. He plays a man who is not only a charismatic movement leader but also someone possessing very human flaws: he flirts with attractive women, smokes one Pall Mall cigarette after another, has smelly feet. Jackson's MLK impression is especially strong and convincing when he reprises parts of the famous "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech he'd given earlier that night at the Mason Temple in Memphis. The audience responded to Jackson's speech here — and throughout the performance — with nods, yeahs and the occasional Amen!
Bassett, who first appeared on Broadway in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in the '80s, also got a round of applause when she came into Room 306 in her role as Camae, a pretty maid delivering coffee at midnight to Dr. King. We learn there's more to this street-smart, sassy, politically-astute, motel maid than meets the eye. At one point, Bassett electrifies the audience with a highly-charged spoken word performance chronicling the country's civil rights achievements as a montage of photographs flickers across a huge screen behind her. Jazz musician and composer Branford Marsalis's vibrant score intensifies the piece's emotional punch.
Bassett and Jackson have undeniable chemistry, and neither misses a beat during the intense 95-minute performance (no intermission). The play ends with a message — profound and moving, but not preachy — that reverberates long after the stage goes dark.
Certainly not everyone will be drawn to a play about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But with two other shows coming to Broadway penned by African American women — "Stick Fly," by Lydia Diamond and "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess," adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks — it will be interesting to see just how diverse and eclectic this season's audiences will be.
"The Mountaintop," directed by Kenny Leon, runs through Jan. 15 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.