GUY RAZ, HOST:
Tonight, a new play opens on Broadway about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last night on earth. It's called "The Mountain Top." The play features some well known names: Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as a mysterious visitor to his room at the Loraine Motel in Memphis.
Behind those big names is a young playwright making her Broadway debut, as we hear from reporter Jeff Lunden.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Katori Hall grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, just like her mother, Camae. And one of her mother's stories was about the night of April 3rd, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town and delivered his famous "Mountaintop" speech. There were severe thunderstorms that evening and rumors that the church where he was speaking would be bombed. So, Hall says her grandmother ordered her 15-year-old daughter to stay home.
KATORI HALL: And my mother, Camae, did not go that night. And so, she never got the chance to hear the words: I may not get there with you, but I know, tonight, we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So, the next day, he was assassinated and she lost her opportunity to ever hear him speak.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: 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.
HALL: And so, to me, that was a clue into where Dr. King was emotionally, mentally, psychologically. And that really allowed me to think about a human being in that particular circumstance who was living in the face of death constantly.
LUNDEN: Katori Hall started to write "The Mountaintop" four years ago. It's a two-character re-imagining of Martin Luther King's final night, right after he delivers his speech. He comes into a depressing motel room, dying for a cigarette, wearily takes his shoes off, and goes to the toilet. Samuel L. Jackson plays the iconic civil rights leader.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON: I know some icons and I know that icons aren't icons all the time. You know, icons are people. They go to the grocery store, they go to the bathroom, they do all the things we do.
LUNDEN: In fact, director Kenny Leon says Hall's play manages to knock Dr. King right off his pedestal.
KENNY LEON: I think she's found a way to portray him as a human, as man, while at the same time embracing all those things that made him special. You know, embracing the fact that he loved his family, he loved his wife, he loved his country and he loved God. And he was, I guess, as perfect as a man could be, but he was still not perfect.
LUNDEN: Over the course of the play, he meets, talks and flirts with a feisty young maid who's brought him some coffee. And like the playwright's mother, she's named Camae. Angela Bassett plays her and says Camae both reveres and challenges Dr. King.
ANGELA BASSETT: She does say, you know, people are getting tired of this walking. You know, he calls it marching, she calls it walking, you know. And something else needs to be done - something, you know, to push this dream forward.
LUNDEN: At one point, Camae puts on Dr. King's jacket and does a bit of her own preaching.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE MOUNTAINTOP")
LUNDEN: As the play progresses, the two characters - one a working class woman, the other an educated man - learn some essential truths from each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE MOUNTAINTOP")
LUNDEN: International Herald Tribune critic Matt Wolf saw the play two years ago in London, where it won an Olivier Award. He says he found the structure interesting.
MATT WOLF: The play, initially, you think is a piece of straightforward naturalism. And what you see is what you get. And then, as the dialogue between Dr. King and Camae continues, you realize that actually all is not as it seems. It's, in a way, a piece of magic realism almost. And that is fascinating because it kind of takes the play somewhere else.
LUNDEN: There's going to be no spoiler here. And so far, Angela Bassett says audiences have managed to keep the play's secret, well, secret.
BASSETT: People have been really good about that and excited about what they've seen. And when they talk about it it's: You just got to go see it. I can't tell you any more.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUNDEN: "The Mountaintop" opens on Broadway tonight.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff London in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.