At this point, there is probably no figure in history who would be harder to portray on stage than Martin Luther King Jr. Even Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln are easier, in a sense, because King was among us until 13 years ago; his memory is still fresh in the minds of millions who were touched, whose lives were changed, by his presence. Any professional playwright would hesitate at such a challenge, and perhaps that is why the first full-scale attempt at a representation of Dr. King to reach the Kennedy Center is the work of an amateur.
"Freedom Child," which played for a single performance last night in the Concert Hall, shows Evelyn LaRue Pittman's obvious love and dedication. It is a heartfelt tribute even more touching in a way because of its lack of technical skill. If it were presented in a church or a school auditorium, which seems to be its natural habitat, it could be accepted as the essentially harmless and occasionally interesting work it is. In a quarter-filled hall of the Kennedy Center, at ticket prices almost comparable to those charged for a Broadway musical, it simply is not right. It would be an injustice to consider it a representation of the best that black artist can do with a subject close to their hearts. And it would be condescension to say something lukewarmly positive about it because it is a well-intentioned treatment of an important subject.
In form "Freedom Child" is something like a school or church pageant, but at its best more like an oratorio. The music, most of the time closely patterned on the rich gospel idioms, is clearly its most attractive element and generally well-sung. It would be better with more music and less of the stiff dialogue that slows it down. It may be useful as an educational experience for those too young to remember Dr. King, or for people in foreign countries -- where, apparently, it has been well received. But even as a semi-abstract presentation of what he meant, even as a contribution to his legend, it leaves much unsaid while wasting time on nonessentials.
For those who remember him, those who feared for his life while he was living and who wept at his death, it simply does not come close to the remembered reality. The man presented as Martin Luther King is a one-dimensional, cardboard figure, a talking statue more than a living human being -- through Lee Edward Fleming, given the impossible job of playing King, carries it off rather well and even manages to sound like him sometimes when speaking his words.
Eventually, there will be other musical and dramatic representations of King -- he is too towering a figure to be bypassed, though it may take more time before he can become manageable in a real work of art. Sooner or later, someone will come closer to the reality -- but it will take a genius, an artist of tremendous talent and self-discipline, and one who can see the man whole and in perspective, balancing the legend with the human reality. It may never be done perfectly, as it certainly has not been this time, but it has to be done better.