Reliving MLK's Last Hours

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Byline: Allison Samuels Photograph By Spencer Heyfron

A new Broadway drama with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett recalls a fateful time--and raises fresh questions about the progress of African-Americans.

Samuel l. Jackson doesn't mince words when sharing his thoughts on the current state of African-American affairs. He isn't happy. More to the point, he's convinced the man he's set to portray on Broadway come October wouldn't be, either. In his Broadway debut, Jackson will step into the shoes of the late Martin Luther King Jr. for The Mountaintop, a fictional account of the last 24 hours of King's life.

The play, which also stars Angela Bassett, explores the emotions, regrets, and fears of the civil-rights leader on the night before he will be shot to death on a Memphis motel balcony. An encounter with a mysterious chambermaid (Bassett) forces him to confront his legacy in ways most could never imagine. Written by Katori Hall, The Mountaintop debuted on London stages in 2009 to rave reviews. The script offers a shocking twist to King's last day, while also providing two A-list actors a chance to mesmerize audiences with a haunting story of a man facing his own mortality.

In a midtown New York theater last week, the 62-year-old Jackson sat with Bassett while they spoke candidly about revisiting the past through King's eyes and whether the current plight of African-Americans is veering toward the point of no return. Jackson says he cleared his film sched-ule so he could appear in a role that humanizes the larger-than-life figure--and possibly return the spotlight to the struggle itself.

"I read this play and I liked what it had to say about the man and where he was at that point in his life," Jackson says. "It showed Dr. King's heart and vulnerability and how much he cared about the movement in ways I'd never seen before, and most people haven't, either. That's what you hope people will take away from it when they see The Mountaintop. Just how important it all was to him, to his last breath."

Bassett plays a controversial role, and her character's true agenda is a secret until the middle of the play, so the audience is surprised when it learns what and who she actually is. Unlike Jackson, who spent time studying King's tone and vocal range, Bassett had no real-life inspiration. "Like Sam, I was drawn into this play because it shows Dr. King's humanity and is a chance to discuss some meaningful issues about where we were then and now," says Bassett. "And it's a chance to commune with the audience."

The play doesn't just surprise--it also has the potential to offend with its bold use of the N word, profanity, and subtle references to King's alleged extramarital affairs. Bernice King, the youngest of his four children, says that while she loves the overall message of the play, which is directed by Kenny Leon, she isn't fond of the "fictional" innuendo or colorful language.

"I just don't think Daddy spoke that way," says King, who was 5 years old when her father was assassinated. "I shared that with the director after reading the play. But I do feel the overall message of The Mountaintop is one that will resonate with audiences long after they leave the theater."

With the upcoming unveiling of a $120 million King memorial on the National Mall in Washington--postponed because of Hurricane Irene--some of King's family and friends wonder if the renewed interest in his life and legacy will spark a resurgence of hope in the African-American community as well.

It would be a welcome change. The era that ushered in the first black president has also introduced the highest levels of unemployment and poverty for African-Americans in more than 20 years. …