At least 15 minutes of Katori Hall’s new play had elapsed before I realised just how much I had been missing Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, the drama’s only actors, from the New York stage. By then, Jackson had established an anchoring presence as Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, in a Memphis hotel room on the night of April 3 1968, and Bassett had the audience laughing heartily at her turn as a hotel maid called Camae.
It took another 10 or 15 minutes before the seams of this undeniably audience-pleasing Broadway evening began to show. Surely a modest motel would not allow an employee to linger with a guest so long after she has delivered his coffee – but Hall and the production’s accomplished director, Kenny Leon, didn’t think it important to care.
Halfway through the play the story takes a turn – deftly sprung by Hall – into poetic circumstance. If Hall thought the new mood could retroactively absolve the illogic that went before, I beg to differ: the more grounded the early reality, the more startling the surprise.
I harp on this problem because the interplay between the actors is so fine and their dialogue so lively that I wanted everything about this interval-less show to shine. King’s premonitions about death (he will be gunned down the next day) and his frustration about the sanitation worker strike he has come to Memphis to lead: these things are efficiently imparted.
Jackson is much taller than King and much older (62) than was King (39) at his death, but the performance wisely avoids impersonation. It movingly conveys King’s humanity – the smoking and the drinking – and his Christian faith is dampened, so that Hall may purvey a basic feminist theology.
Bassett’s performance lapses into “sho’nuff” caricature, and Leon doesn’t help matters by allowing her to sashay to the front of the stage and milk the audience attention. No question, though, that Bassett’s delivery of the play’s two big speeches is superb: first, she stands on one of the beds and orates on how things could be made better for black people; later, she raps a summing-up aria about black America since King’s death. The video accompaniment to the latter outburst is rousing, a bit jittery, and too broadly distracting: rather like the evening itself.