From Battersea pub theatre to a smash hit on Broadway

Samuel L Jackson pulls in the crowds to feted lifestory of Martin Luther King Jnr

It was first performed in a tiny 65-seat theatre above a pub in Battersea.

Then it won a transfer to the West End, and the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play. And The Mountaintop, a two-hander about Martin Luther King Jr, has been brought to Broadway in a spellbinding production starring Samuel L Jackson.

The drama, boasting the full-wattage star-power of Angela Bassett as well as Jackson as Dr King, has swiftly become the hottest ticket in New York playing to packed preview audiences and expected to sell out its limited run.

Nor is it simply theatre aficionados who are rushing to see Hall’s take on the civil rights icon and the sassy chambermaid with whom he spends his last few hours on earth. When Jackson and Bassett appeared on morning talk show, The View, the box office promptly sold $125,000 worth of tickets in just over an hour. And the audience, easily Broadway’s most diverse, has included everyone from high school kids who have only ever known King as the name on a public holiday to civil rights veterans in their seventies and eighties.

The attendees at Thursday’s opening night alone read like a roll call of black American talent as the likes of Spike Lee, Gabourey Sidibe, and Harry Belafonte rubbed shoulders with the King family, and political veterans such as New York congressman Charlie Rangel and the Reverend Al Sharpton mingled with rising stars including Newark Mayor Cory Brooker and former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jnr.

Uniting them all, famous or otherwise, was their emotional response to Hall’s deeply human portrait of King, who we first meet bemoaning his smelly feet and craving a cigarette. “I’ve had people rush up to me immediately after the play has finished with red eyes saying to me ‘My father was in the movement,’ ‘I was in the movement’,” says Hall, who wrote the play in part for her mother who as a young woman was denied the chance to hear King speak . “At one preview there an 85-year-old woman in the audience who had marched with Dr King in Memphis who stood up 15 minutes before the end and starting clapping,”.

That outpouring of tears, cheers and occasionally jeers is partially down to the way in which King is viewed in America. In a country that consistently makes icons of its heroes the assassinated civil rights leader stands apart. Indeed it’s arguable that he is viewed almost as a secular saint in parts of America, where households often grew up with three portraits on the wall: Dr King, President Kennedy and Jesus.

By contrast Hall gives us the man behind the memorials, tired, sometimes frightened, not above stripping a woman with his eyes. In this she is ably aided by two compelling and naturalistic performances, with Jackson occasionally so relaxed that you almost forget you’re watching an actor. The 63-year-old, who grew up in segregated Tennessee and volunteered as an usher at King’s funeral, makes the audience empathise with the casual vanities of the man even as he shows us the inner strength at his core. It’s an under-stated performance, which is cleverer than it might initially appear, gaining its power from the subtlety at its heart.

Meanwhile Bassett, who took over after Halle Berry dropped out in early rehearsals, is a revelation as the mysterious Camae, by turns earthy and ethereal, sassy and sympathetic. Handed many of the drama’s best lines, she runs off with them, her final bravura soliloquy pulling off the difficult trick of making the audience weep, laugh and cheer in the space of a five minute speech.

That said the New York run has not been without controversy. Hall’s vision is in many ways a feminist critique of history in general and the civil rights era in particular and some Christian groups have walked out of early previews – angry about Hall’s decision to make God a black woman – while, as might be expected given the almost proprietary reverence with which King is held in America, a number of theatregoers expressed their anger over what they see as an ‘disrespectful’ and even ‘blasphemous’ take on the activist’s life.

The King family themselves have remained largely silent – they were sent a copy of the play beforehand and hailed it as an “interesting work of fiction.”

Critical reception has also been mixed. In the New York Times Ben Brantley praised Jackson’s ‘engagingly low-key performance’ while criticising the play as ‘thin’ while New York magazine called it ‘strangely weightless’ and the Washington Post went further damning it as ‘a disappointingly hokey historical homage’. But there were positive reviews from Entertainment Weekly, the Associated Press and The Hollywood Reporter, as well as on a number of black interest blogs – a sharp contrast to the predominantly white, middle-aged reviewers of the mainstream press.

Hall herself remains diplomatically silent on whether the play’s force depends on the colour or background of the viewer. “I’ve been most surprised by the number of younger people who have come and enjoyed it,” she says. “Look this is America, there are bound to be detractors and they’re bound to be louder…but I’ve always said that this is an imaginative interpretation of what he was going through on his last night. For me this play is bearing witness to history, it’s about showing that there was a man behind the ideas and the statues.”