“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. 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!” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King
My friend, Pam, insisted that I see The Mountaintop, a play that chronicles the fictional last night of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, which he spends speaking with a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Angela Bassett is stunning in her immersion into her character, exhibiting a wide-reaching array of emotions from one moment to the next. (She’ll be getting a Tony nod, no doubt.) Samuel L. Jackson played Samuel L. Jackson, and I really wanted him to play Martin Luther King. Surely, he is capable of it, right? Why was he directed to be so, well, normal? Where was Martin Luther King, the most inspiring speaker in recent history?
I mulled this over from the moment he stepped on stage. And then Aretha Franklin sat down next to me, a few minutes after the lights went down. She is the closest we have to royalty in the this country. And she is regal. Elegant. And reserved. When the lights came up after the bows, I stood up, smiled wide and wished her a good evening. She smiled wide and nodded. People all around us noticed her – there is no way to mistake her for anyone else – and she quickly sat back down. She is after all, just a woman watching a show that her friends are performing.
It struck me how ironic it would be that I would be watching the story of one legend while seated next to another. We expect a lot of public figures. We do expect them to be perfect at every turn, to inspire us, impress us, and all the while maintain constant composure. We hold them to impossible standards, standards we never meet, standards we never even attempt.
In The Mountaintop, Dr. King talks about how death doesn’t look or feel the way he thought it would. It wasn’t what he expected. And death responds, “You’re not what I expected, Preacher King.” And then I realized what Samuel L. Jackson was doing in addition to playing Samuel L. Jackson. He was showing us the fear and the humanity of a man who we have canonized when in truth he was just a man. A dedicated, passionate, empowered man, with flaws and doubts and inconsistencies.
Dr. King has inspired generations of people around the world, and he did what all of us can do and few of us actually do. He picked up the baton and ran with it, passing it off when his time had come. How many of us will have the courage to do the same?