*With all the calls for a black James Bond, it’s still kind of shocking to see this development.
A white actor has been chosen b y a black director to play Martin Luther Luther King Jr. It’s for a production at Kent State University in Ohio and the woman who wrote the play, Katori Hall, is none too pleased.
Here’s the back story:
When “The Mountaintop,” an award-winning drama that imagines Dr. King on the eve of his assassination debuted in September, three of the six performances, Dr. King was portrayed by a black actor; in the other three, a white actor performed the role.
Director Michael Oatman addressed his casting choice when the performance was initially announced.
“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,” he said in a statement. “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.”
The shows went off as planned and there was nary a peep about the elephant in the room after the show closed on October 4.
— Hello Beautiful (@HelloBeautiful) November 10, 2015
But according to HuffPost, things changed when in late October, a Twitter user asked “The Mountaintop” playwright Katori Hall what she thought about the casting choice. Hall’s response was that she thought it was “tone deaf.”
A few days later, Howard Sherman, director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, noted that news of the performance had started to circulate.
“People are dumbfounded,” he wrote. “People are incredulous. People are angry.”
Meanwhile, Hall said she had also spoken to Oatman, who told her the casting choice was an experiment in “racial ownership and authenticity.”
“I wanted to see if a white actor, or a light-skinned actor, had the same cultural buy-in and could portray Dr. King,” he told Hall. “Dr. King is not just a prominent African American, he’s a prominent American. Why can’t an American play another prominent American?”
“I believe that the American theater is one of the last safe places we can experiment and explore,” Oatman told KentWired.com.
On Monday, in an essay for The Root, Hall called Oatman’s casting “dangerously distorted,” an experiment that “proved to be a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise.”
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… 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. […]
Theater is a sacred space, with audience members sitting in the same room, breathing the same air, bearing witness to an experience that is unlike their own. Tears streaming down an actor’s face trigger the rising sting behind our own eyes and a growing pang of empathy in our own hearts… 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.
So here’s the deal, going forward, here’s how the situation will be handled. Hall has added a new stipulation in the licensing agreement for her play:
“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.”
And that ends that. Or does it. Something tells us this issue is going to pop up again and again.