The Broadway season will reach a peak at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Oct. 13, when two of Hollywood's loftiest actors brave Katori Hall's Olivier Award-winning drama The Mountaintop. Tony Award nominee Kenny Leon (Fences) directs Samuel L. Jackson as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. Angela Bassett plays Camae, an enigmatic maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where the civil rights leader has retired after delivering his legendary "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.
Although Jackson, 62, got his start in New York theatre, acting regularly as a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, his sole Broadway credit is as an understudy — "I never went on," he says — in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson in 1990. He has not performed onstage since a 1993 Los Angeles production of Kevin Heelan's Distant Fires, which he did while shooting Pulp Fiction, the film that earned Jackson an Oscar nod and made him an international star. "Every time I see a show, I miss the energy of a live audience," says the actor, who felt particularly nostalgic watching wife LaTanya Richardson in the 2009 Broadway revival of Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. "It's fun to get back to that."
Jackson's history as a civil rights activist also led to his Mountaintop ascent. "I was an usher at Dr. King's funeral, so this is a full-circle moment," he says. "I understand what's going on outside that motel room, so this play touched a nerve inside me that said, 'You need to do this.' There's also a need to do something about Dr. King the man, as opposed to the icon, speechwriter and dreamer. In this play he's just a guy, thinking about his life, his family, the death threats. It's a way to inform young people who see the play about who Dr. King really was."
In shaping his portrayal, Jackson drew upon his connection to Dr. King beyond their shared spirit of activism. "Like me, he was a father, a husband, and he dealt with fame," he explains. "I don't get death threats, but I understand how it feels to have trepidations about stepping out into the world, having fear but not letting anyone see it."
Jackson also studied Dr. King's speech patterns by listening to various interviews. He focused on his conversational tone as opposed to his iconic orations. "I don't have the mimic abilities that, say, Jamie Foxx has, but I'm making a conscious effort to make sure that the audience sees Dr. King and not me. I don't do a lot of biographical stuff, so it's kind of weird."
Ironically, Jackson is paired with Bassett, 53, an actress famous for her studied portrayals of real people, especially her Oscar-nominated performance as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It. "You can never be them," she cautions Jackson. "I just have a great deal of respect for all the individuals I've played, for their strengths and their weaknesses." The part of Camae was named after the playwright's mother [Carrie-Mae], who grew up near the Lorraine Motel, but Bassett stresses that hers is a fictitious character: "I'm doing my own thing."
Bassett has nurtured her theatrical roots more than her co-star, notably starring opposite Alec Baldwin in the Public Theater's 1998 Macbeth, but she has appeared on Broadway only once, in the original Joe Turner's Come and Gone in 1988. "I left Broadway behind to go do TV and film in L.A., but I had the intention of coming back in six months," she says. "I sort of got stuck out there."
"What a dilemma," Jackson teases.
"I've had opportunities to return to Broadway before, but nothing lit a spark in me," Bassett continues. "Broadway's an actor's dream, but my doing The Mountaintop wasn't about that. I'm always looking for a great character, and it's exciting to work with friends and folks that I admire."
"Oh, people ask you to do things all the time if they think they can sell more tickets with your name on the marquee," adds Jackson, who has also declined numerous Broadway offers in recent years. "As long as your own intentions are pure, you'll end up doing the things you're really supposed to do."
Jackson has not worked with Bassett since the Negro Ensemble Company's Colored People's Time in the early 1980s, but they have remained close friends. "We go to the same church, and her kids hang out at my house," Jackson shares.
While he had no bearing on Bassett's Mountaintop casting, he considers their professional reunion a dream come true. "We all know that somebody else was supposed to do the play, and she didn't," he says, referring to Halle Berry's reported previous attachment. "But things always happen the way they're supposed to. We hope audiences enjoy the play; more importantly, Angela and I will enjoy being there together, telling this wonderful story."
Playbill, October 2011 issue.