— KentWired (@kentwired) September 24, 2015
In her critically acclaimed play “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall drastically re-imagined Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of the self-assured Civil Rights icon depicted in newsreels and on national monuments, Hall portrayed King as a regular man with regular struggles.
“He had vulnerabilities and fears,” Hall told The Washington Post in 2013. “That is the King you will see in ‘Mountaintop.’ . . . It was important to see the humanity in this hero so we can see the hero in ourselves.”
But there are limits to the range of humanity Hall wanted her character to capture.
Last month, Hall opened an e-mail from a friend. Inside the e-mail was a link to an amateur production of her play at Kent State University. Hall clicked on the link and was taken aback.
The actor pictured on stage looked similar to MLK in every other production of “The Mountaintop” save for one detail.
“At first glance I was like, ‘Unh-uh, maybe he light-skinned. Don’t punish the brother for being able to pass,'” Hall wrote Monday on the Root. “But further Googling told me otherwise.”
Martin Luther King was now white.
The controversial production, and Hall’s angry reaction, have opened a debate about the limits of non-traditional casting at a time when race is under a microscope in America.
As actors of color increasingly play traditionally white roles, breaking Broadway’s color barriers, should the opposite be true as well? Should a white man be allowed to play a black historical figure as important as Martin Luther King?
Not in my play, Hall answered.
In her article for the Root, Hall wrote about her mother’s sighting of MLK’s “chocolate” skin just days before the reverend’s assassination formed the basis of “The Mountaintop,” which shows King struggling with a host of troubles in the hours before his death.
“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,” Hall said in the article. “The actor playing King stood there, hands outstretched, his skin far from chocolate but a creamy buff.
“Kent State had broken a world record; it was the first Mountaintop production to make King white,” she continued.
“Rage would come in the morning,” Hall said. But that night she merely rattled off an e-mail to her agent, who complained to the Dramatists Play Service, who sent a “a damning letter to the university about the race-revisionist casting.”
“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,” Hall wrote in the Root. “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,” she added.
But the curious case of Kent State’s race-blurring play was no accident by an oblivious Ohio director.
Instead, it was a conscious and deliberately provocative choice by a director — an African American director, nonetheless.
“I truly wanted to explore the issue of racial ownership and authenticity,” director Michael Oatman said on opening night of his decision to use two actors — one white, one black — to play King. “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.”
Robert Branch, the white actor cast as King, said he was as surprised as anyone to get the part.
“When I first got offered the role, I literally kissed the feet of the director,” he said, according to a Kent State press release. “It was a dream. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero of mine before I even knew what heroes were. I was humbled. I wanted to honor this man and honor this text.”
His female co-star said that she was nervous about the casting.
“My first response was, what do you mean Martin Luther King is going to be white?” said Cristal Christian, the actress playing Camae, a maid who appears at King’s hotel room door.
“Had I not found the right actors for this piece, I do not think that I would have even attempted it,” Oatman said in the press release.
Hill said she would have preferred it that way.
In an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday, the playwright doubled-down on her criticism of Oatman’s decision to cast a white man as King.
“I just really feel as though it echoes this pervasive erasure of the black body and the silencing of a black community — theatrically and also, literally, in the world,” she said.
The casting was “disrespectful” and “a disservice to not just Dr. King but an entire community,” Hall added.
She wasn’t the only one left fuming.
“How was this allowed to happen?” Howard Sherman, interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, said in a blog post.
“While it is quite surprising to imagine Dr. King, or Malala Yousafzai, or Cesar Chavez played by white actors, let’s remember that we are now in the post-Hamilton era, which suggests to the narrow-minded that roles meant for people of color can now be played by white actors if traditionally (or historically) white characters can be played by actors of color,” Sherman said, referencing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly acclaimed, hip-hop-infused, genre- and race-blurring musical.
“I would, and frequently do, argue that this is a false equivalency,” continued Sherman, who is also director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts School of Drama. “Could such specificity lead to playwrights declaring that their characters can only be played by white actors? Yes, and whether we like it or not, that’s their right. For as long as work is under copyright, it is the decision of the author (or their estate) to decide what may be done with or to their work. Yes, that may seem to stifle creativity on the part of directors and limit opportunities for actors in some works, but in the theatre in the U.S. — as opposed to film or television — the authors own their plays and have the final word.”
That’s exactly what has happened with “The Mountaintop.”
“In the wake of the Kent State production,” Hall said, “the following clause has been added to my 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.’”
Presto. No more white Kings, at least in productions of Hall’s play.
Despite her anger over the casting uproar, Hall said that she hoped the controversy would draw attention to the fraught issue of race in the theater.
“I feel as though a lot of theatremakers were a bit appalled at the choice that the director made — and that it was supported so wholeheartedly by the institution,” Hall told the Guardian. “So it was really a moment to talk about playwright intention, but to then, beyond that, talk about much bigger issues, about not only being a black artist but also being a black person in America.”