After seeing "The Mountaintop" on Broadway, Laurence Fishburne went backstage, stunned.
He was looking to toast his old friend, Angela Bassett. The two had co-starred in the intense Tina Turner biopic "What's Love Got to Do With It?" but Fishburne had seen something special pour out of Bassett on this night.
"He came back and said, 'Where has she been? Where you been hiding her?' " Bassett recalls, a wistful smile playing over her beautiful face. "And that's someone who knows me."
Bassett is turning in an otherworldly performance in playwright Katori Hall's fictional drama set in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night before the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Opposite Samuel L. Jackson as King, Bassett is turning heads in the heaven-sent role of a mysterious motel maid, Camae, who delivers coffee to the civil rights leader's room and sparks conversation. It's a rich, physical, delicious part after years of scraps and a reminder of Bassett's prodigious power.
"It's like if you've been starving and get this great meal with all these nutrients -- vegetables and fruit and, then all of a sudden, every cell of your body is like, 'Ohhh!' " she says in a dressing room at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. "It's like, been a little sluggish and it springs to life. I've just been loving it."
Already extended, "The Mountaintop" will end its run Jan. 22 because Jackson has a movie commitment.
Bassett, 53, came to Camae -- her first Broadway role since 1988 -- fresh, not having seen the production in London. She sees Camae as a country girl without a lot of schooling but plenty of common sense, and drew on her Florida roots to give the maid a strong Southern drawl.
Director Kenny Leon, who has known Bassett since the ninth grade, said she pretty much walked in the door and claimed the role. "I love how she goes way, way beneath the surface to create these amazing characters," he says. He calls her a real theater beast who gets her entire body involved, "from her fingernails to her toenails."
"I think five years from now people will remember things about what she did in 'The Mountaintop,' " he adds. "I don't think people really realize how great she is. I think time will demonstrate her greatness in that role."
In the play, audiences watch King flirt, curse, smoke Pall Malls, sip booze and even have a pillow fight with Camae, who oozes sass (At one point, King teasingly asks the maid whether he should shave off his mustache. "Well," she replies, "have you axed yo' wife?").
Bassett wasn't uncomfortable with showing the fleshy, banal side of a civil rights saint. "I accept the humanity of people -- the good, the bad, the frailties, whatever. I try not to make people out as gods," she says. "We all make mistakes. We are fallible human beings. And that's OK. So I didn't have any queasiness that we were about to tarnish his legacy."
Every night, Bassett has a routine. She gets to the theater, puts her bag down and stands on the empty stage, breathing it in. She also runs her hand over the "306" on the prop hotel room door in a silent tribute.
Before going on, she checks to make sure she has the seven items she needs for every show: a lighter, a pack of matches in case the lighter doesn't work, a handkerchief, a flask, two packs of cigarettes and a special prop ring.
It's been more than two decades since Bassett left New York for Los Angeles to break into film. It wasn't until she stepped into a pair of spiky high heels for her strutting, hip-shimmying performance as Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It?" that Bassett became a star, receiving an Academy Award nomination.
"This is up there. This is up there with the special ones," she says of her "Mountaintop" role, her voice soft as a down pillow. "I haven't had a character like this in a long time where I could bring this to bear."