Kenny Leon draws on MLK’s Atlanta legacy to direct The Mountaintop on Broadway

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As Atlanta celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday today, the Tony buzz continues to build in New York City for director Kenny Leon’s latest Broadway hit, “The Mountaintop.” The 75-minute play, written by Katori Hall, stars Leon’s old pal Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as a maid awed by the civil rights leader as she delivers coffee to his less than luxurious accommodations inside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The critically acclaimed play being staged at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York closes this week.

 Just before casting the luminous Bassett in the much-coveted role last year, The founder of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre spoke to us about weaving our city into a play set in Memphis and being brought to life each night onstage in Manhattan.

 “One of the first things I did when I was offered this opportunity was that I called Bernice King,” Leon told Atlanta magazine.  “I wanted to speak to the family out of respect for them. There’s been so much written about Dr. King. So I sat down and talked with Bernice and Marty [Martin Luther King III]. I wanted them to be a part of the production. This is a fictitious account of what happened the night before Dr. King’s assassination but everything about the play is honoring the themes and ideas that Dr. King embraced. It was important for me to receive their input.”

 Set late night on April 3, 1968, King is in his motel room waiting for his bunkmate Rev. Ralph David Abernathy to return with a pack of Pall Malls. He’s just delivered what will turn out to be his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” to striking sanitation workers. He’s tired and coming down with a cold when Bassett’s character turns up.

Of the play’s set up, Leon reflected: “Since this is a fictional account, it gives the writer some freedom. We want the audience to see him as a man and not as a historic iconic figure. I’m hoping through humor, the softness of his heart will come out.”

 In the 1970s, Leon was majoring as a political science major at Clark Atlanta University and minoring in theater and was a few years behind Sam Jackson who was studying at Morehouse in Atlanta.

 “My experiences in Atlanta will only help inform my direction of this play,” Leon said. “I was a good friend of Yolanda King and I loved her so much and I miss her. I know the family and I know Andy Young. I’ve known Sam Jackson forever and he, of course, went to Morehouse, Dr. King’s alma mater and he attended that funeral and he has such a respect for Dr. King. You have two guys associated with this play who understand Atlanta and want to bring Dr. King’s legacy into this production. I’m about uplifting those things that Dr. King held dear to his heart. I feel like I’m the ideal person to direct this play and to do this production justice.”

 Aside from securing another Best Director Tony nomination for “The Mountaintop,” Leon had loftier goals for the play. “By showing that Dr. King was a man, we’re hoping to inspire young people and to tell them that they too can be great,” he explained. “He wasn’t a superman. He was just a man but a man who did great things, honorable things.”

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