It’s inarguable that the subjectivity and malleability of theater across productions may be one of its most beautiful and singular qualities. However, it’s also inarguable that sometimes, despite the notion that there’s no one “right” way to do something, certain “experiments” can end up going wrong. The Root has published playwright Katori Hall’s response to the fact that her play, The Mountaintop — a fictionalized portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night before his assassination — was performed at Kent State University with a white actor in the role of the leader of the civil rights movement.
As Playbill notes, the play was first produced in London, where it starred David Harewood; it then had a run on Broadway, where Samuel L. Jackson made his Broadway debut playing MLK (Angela Bassett co-starred). Jackson and Harewood are, you may note, black. Since the play’s 2009 premiere, it has garnered the interest of many regional and smaller theaters elsewhere in the country (for example, there was a production at the famed Guthrie in Minneapolis in 2014, and it’s currently at the Dallas Theater Center). In these, Martin Luther King, Jr. has also, as would be expected, played by black actors. In fact, even in Russia (as the playwright noted in the response to the Kent State production on The Root) “where black actors are scarce, the theater moved mountains to cast two black actors for the reading.”
However, in the Kent State production — put up through the school’s Department of Pan-African Studies African Community Theater — the role was double cast, split between a black man and a white man as an experiment. The director, Michael Oatman (the Creative Director of African Community Theatre within the department, as well as an adjunct playwriting professor at the school — who, perhaps complicating the perceived intentions behind the whitewashing, happened to be approaching the play from a black man’s perspective), had spoken in the school newspaper of the nature of his nontraditional 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. 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.
This explanation didn’t please Hall, nor did Oatman’s description when they finally met — after Hall went to see the production for herself. She recalls that he said something along the lines of, “I wanted to see if a white actor, or a light-skinned actor, had the same cultural buy-in and could portray Dr. King.” In The Root, she responds to these notions, saying:
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…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.
It’s not always the case that a playwright’s intent needs to or should be preserved, but it seems especially questionable to stifle, or even erase, that intent when said intent is to fight a pervasive form of historical erasure. Hall therefore explains that this production led her to put an addendum on the 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.