Playwright Katori Hall has spoken out with a powerful op-ed reacting to Director Michael Oatman’s decision to enlist a White actor to play Martin Luther King, Jr. in his amateur production of Hall’s play, The Mountaintop.
Robert Branch was the actor playing MLK while Camila Christian played the maid that the civil rights activist was conversing with at the Lorraine Motel the night before his assassination. Oatman’s production was hosted by the Department of Pan-African Studies African Community Theater at Ohio’s Kent State University for six performances.
In Hall’s op-ed at The Root, she was highly dismissive of the production, calling Oatman’s work “self-serving” and a “disrespectful directing exercise” for the audiences paying good money to see the show. The playwright spoke at length about the issue with race-revisionist casting.
She also spoke on the importance of leaving space for Black actors and Black characters to be represented in theatrical works with respect to the playwrights’ intentions, and to give audiences an authentic and historically accurate experience. An excerpt from her passage read:
“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. From Eric Garner to the Charleston Nine to the latest black girl slammed to the ground by a cop, our bodies have been used as a battlefield where the Civil War has mutated and continues to claim the lives of those who should have been freed from the sharp knife of racism centuries ago.
“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.”
Hall says that Oatman never consulted her on his decision to cast Branch as MLK, and has since added a clause to her licensing agreement for the playing saying: “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.”
This is the first and only Mountaintop production that has ever cast a White man to play MLK. People did in fact come out to see the show out of curiosity, although it wasn’t well received by everyone and many shared Hall’s critique.
Many people walked out; given that the play doesn’t have an intermission, the people who disapproved of the play apparently brought more attention to themselves and their disgust with the work than the play itself.
“Our stories are worthy of that pedestal we call the stage,” Hall says. “[O]ur black bodies must stand unaltered in that spotlight, so that our skin, like King’s, can reflect back our humanity and we can all see ourselves in it.”
[SOURCE: The Root]