ohio kent state white martin luther king
Katori Hall let her feelings on the subject be known, via an essay for TheRoot, calling the “tone deaf” director’s casting choice, “self-serving and disrespectful” and accusing him of “committing yet another erasure of the black body.”
Kent State's Creative Director, Michael Oatman, put on a six-performance run of The Mountaintop, at the university’s Department of Pan-African Studies African Community Theater. Oatman, who is African American himself, says he made the decision to double cast the role of King—splitting the performances evenly between a black, and a white, actor—because, he “wanted to see if a white actor, or a light-skinned actor, had the same cultural buy-in and could portray Dr. King.”
The Mountaintop focuses on the last hours of the African American civil rights activist’s life, just prior to his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
The 39-year-old was shot in the face by a sniper’s bullet at 6:01 p.m, as he stood on the second floor balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. The bullet entered through his cheek, shattering his jaw, before traveling down his spinal cord and ending in his shoulder. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he underwent emergency chest surgery, but was pronounced dead at 7.05 pm.
The Olivier award-winning play is named after King’s last speech, which is popularly known as, I’ve been to the Mountaintop—and is set entirely in the Dr.'s motel room, with just two characters—MLK, and a mysterious woman named, Camae, who appears to be a maid, but is in fact an angel, tasked with informing the Baptist Minister that he is about to die. The play attempts to answer three important questions about King’s last hours on earth: What did Martin Luther King Jr. do the night before he died? Who did he talk to? What did he say?
Hall’s bedrock for The Mountaintop came from her mother, Carrie’s, recollection of seeing King, just days before his murder, as he arrived in Memphis to lead a march for sanitation workers.
“I remember he had the prettiest skin I had ever seen. Flawless. So chocolate you could see yourself reflected in it,” Hall recounts her mom telling her of the encounter.
It’s that very same bedrock that causes Hall—who has previously urged directors to cast for diversity in their productions of her work—to take such great umbrage at Oatman's casting choice.
Had the director and school reached out to this living playwright, they would have learned that I actually believe that race is a mental construct and that I have urged race-revolutionary casting for a few works. In fact, when I received news in London of the white King, I had just left a workshop at the National for my play Children of Killers, about the aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.
I had urged the directors to cast for diversity within their youth groups, providing the caveat that casting must drive home the major theme: that lines of identity were arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers, rendering signifiers of “racial” identity unreliable. However, with the majority of my work, what I have committed to is visually articulating a certain skin experience.
Imagine my surprise when, on Oct. 4, 2015, at midnight in London, I received an email from a colleague sending me a link to Kent State University’s amateur production of the play. The actor playing King stood there, hands outstretched, his skin far from chocolate but a creamy buff. At first glance I was like, “Unh-uh, maybe he light-skinned. Don’t punish the brother for being able to pass.” But further Googling told me otherwise.
Director Michael Oatman had indeed double-cast the role of King with a black actor and a white actor for a six-performance run at the university’s Department of Pan-African Studies African Community Theater. Kent State had broken a world record; it was the first Mountaintop production to make King white.
Hall concedes she never actually stipulated in the play text that both King and Camae be portrayed by black actors, but, “reading comprehension and good-old scene analysis” (not to mention historical fact) dictates that choice—she has since added a clause to the play’s licensing agreement insisting that “Both characters are intended to be played by actors who are African-American or Black.”
She goes on to explain exactly why color is such an important issue in this instance:
Black writers dedicated to using black bodies, who remain at the center of a devalued narrative, are committing a revolutionary act. We are using theater to demand a witnessing. Our experiences have been shaped by a ragged history, and dark skin has proved to be a dangerous inheritance. From Eric Garner to the Charleston Nine to the latest black girl slammed to the ground by a cop, our bodies have been used as a battlefield where the Civil War has mutated and continues to claim the lives of those who should have been freed from the sharp knife of racism centuries ago.
The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body. Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless, especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world.
Let us not forget that brown bodies are still being used to further mythologize and perpetuate the narratives of dead white men, historically and currently the most privileged group in American society. Furthermore, having white actors take on roles written specifically for actors of color.
To answer Oatman’s thesis, of course, white actors can have a “cultural buy-in” to King—we all do—but this playwright’s intention was to extend an exquisite privilege to an audience: to be in the Lorraine Motel, Room 306, with an extraordinary ordinary black man. Brown skin carries with it a certain history and experience. Those who saw “the white version” of The Mountaintop were robbed of that opportunity.
I suppose this is what breaks my heart most of all. We live in a world where a director wants to measure the impact of King’s words coming from a black body versus a white one. Does this director think that an audience wouldn’t accept them from a black body?
Even in the theater, we are still fighting silencing, erasure. But our experiences and the brown skin that shapes them need to be witnessed. Our stories are worthy of that pedestal we call the stage, and our black bodies must stand unaltered in that spotlight, so that our skin, like King’s, can reflect back our humanity and we can all see ourselves in it.
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