Should Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. EVER Be Played By A White Actor?

November 11, 2015  |  


When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said that he dreamed of a day when we are no longer judged by the color of skin, but by the content of our character, I am certain he didn’t mean that we just erase his physical self altogether.

What I mean is, The Kent State Pan-African Studies department recently put on the play The Mountaintop, which is a story that centers around Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night before he was assassinated. Nothing unusual or controversial about that.

Until you consider that in addition to casting a Black actor, the play’s producers also cast a White man to play Dr. King.

It’s a plot twist worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan film…

Michael Oatman, who is Black, directed the play and told the local college paper that he cast the White actor because he was “one of the best actors I’ve ever seen.” And according to the Broadway World, Oatman also said of the casting choice:

“I truly wanted to explore the issue of racial ownership and authenticity. I didn’t want this to be a stunt, but a true exploration of King’s wish that we all be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin,” says Oatman on Kent State’s website. “I wanted the contrast . . . I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds.”

However, the play’s original writer, Katori Hall, isn’t too pleased with the colorblind production. In fact, she calls it “an erasure of Black bodies.” And for The Root, she writes:

“Rage would come in the morning, but that night my jet-lagged self was fit to be tired. A weak sigh was followed by a quick forwarding of the email to my agent, who promptly reached out to Dramatists Play Service, which quickly sent a damning letter to the university about the race-revisionist casting. “While that might be considered an interesting experiment, it is also—quite clearly—not what the author wrote or intended.” Well, a playwright’s good intentions be damned.

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. Hell, even in Russia, where black actors are scarce, the theater moved mountains to cast two black actors for the reading.

Neither the director nor the school consulted me or Dramatists Play Service regarding this experiment (though I have been told by a Twitter follower who lodged a complaint that the university claimed that I had spoken to the director and had given him creative license: #baldfacedlie).”

She also wrote:

“If Oatman were truly interested in finding out how, as he said, the “words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds,” he lost a grand opportunity. No talkbacks were scheduled to truly measure the success of Oatman’s experiment about “racial ownership and authenticity.” With a playwright’s intention being dangerously distorted, Oatman’s experiment proved to be a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise for a paying audience.”

In the wake of the Kent production, Hall has added a clause to her licensing agreement, which requires that any reproduction of her work be played by African-American or Black actors.

I certainly feel like that is a good idea.

But I also have to admit, I am kind of intrigued what a serious production of The Mountaintop would look like with a White Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? I am a fan of art that is both subversive and speculative. And it would be kind of cool to see how I would react to Dr. King’s words coming out of a White man’s mouth.

Like, would I feel the same about the War in Vietnam speech if King looked more like Tim Wise? Or would I feel like, once again a”White” man is centering himself in Black spaces? Or would I find the whole thing absurdly humorous? The latter is a strong possibility, especially when dealing with bad theater.

Now, I’m not saying that the Kent State production was bad theater. I’m sure the acting was superb. But generally speaking, nobody wants Dr. King turned into a punchline.

Not this soon. And not when his image has been already misappropriated on nightclub flyers, in McDonalds commercials and for sales at the mall.

Not to mention, Dr. King was assassinated in 1964. That means there are plenty of people around in this world who can adequately recall what Dr. King looked like. That includes his children. And I imagine for those people, particularly Black people who lived through the Civil Rights era (and even descendants of the era), they might take serious offense to a re-imagination of our hero when we haven’t even gotten the actual representation of him and notable Black figures (shout-out to Nina Simone and Harriet Tubman) correct.

As you can see, I am down the middle on this issue. But I am interested in the arguments either. So make sure to leave a comment below.

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