Playwright Reacts to White Actor Being Cast As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.!
You may have heard of the play The Mountaintop, which is a reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth before his assassination. The play focuses on a conversation Dr. King has with a hotel maid named Camae as he questions his legacy.
The play was written by Katori Hall, and was based on her mother’s memory of King, whom she said, “had the prettiest chocolate skin I had ever seen.”
We all are aware of what Dr. King looked like, so call us perplexed when a production of The Mountaintop at Kent State University featured a White actor as Dr. King. The actors in the play were Cristal Christian and Robert Branch.
“While it is true that I never designated in the play text that King and Camae be played by black actors, reading comprehension and good-old scene analysis would lead any director to cast black or darker-complexioned actors,” wrote Hall for TheRoot.com.
“Hell, even in Russia, where black actors are scarce, the theater moved mountains to cast two black actors for the reading.”
Due to this production, Hall has added to her licensing agreement: “Both characters are intended to be played by actors who are African-American or Black. Any other casting choice requires the prior approval of the author.”
After the production closed, Hall was able to speak with the play’s director, Michael Oatman.
Defending his decision to cast a White actor to play Dr. King, Oatman said, “I wanted to see if a White actor, or a light-skinned actor, had the same cultural buy-in and could portray Dr. King. Dr. King is not just a prominent African American, he’s a prominent American. Why can’t an American play another prominent American?”
During their conversation, Oatman went on to say people stayed out of curiosity to watch the play until the end, but there were three older Black women who stormed out.
Hall writes of Oatman’s decision, “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.
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.”
Hall feels the casting of this White Dr. King is an act of erasure against the Black body. She says it’s disrespectful to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself creatively and in the world.
Hall goes on to write, “This is why I tell the stories of my people to build a bridge over our country’s ever widening racial empathy gap. Theater has been my way of demanding empathy for a people so often robbed of it. I believe that giving a black body the physical space to safely breathe puts value in black lives during a time of continued debasement. Audiences of all backgrounds are forced to see the humanity of us, whether they like it or not.”