White Man Cast As Martin Luther King Jr, Because "Art"
Allow us to set the stage:
In fair Ohio where we lay our scene, one adjunct playwriting professor, unique in lack of dignity, let liberal minds turn a liberal play unclean by casting a white man as Martin Luther the King.
Forgive the cruddy Shake-speak if you will. Much like Micheal Oatman, the above stated professor, we were only trying to appropriate something we don’t totally understand. At Kent University which, you may be surprised to find out, does in fact have black people in attendance (black actors, even), Oatman thought that it would be a fine idea to put on Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop. It’s a remarkable piece of work which aims to humanize one of the most sanctified human beings in all of American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Except that in this production, the king himself would be played by two actors, a white one and a black one.
Oatman cited a whole laundry list of psuedo-intellectual nonsense as reasoning. Mostly he was doing it for the sake of “experimentation” (fuckboi alumni speak for “for the lolz.” Just ask your nearest chem major.). He wanted to see if King’s words were any less impactful coming from a white actor versus a black actor. When he was confronted by the less than enthused Hall, he had this to say: “I just didn’t think there was [any problem]. I wanted to see if a white actor, or a light-skinned actor, had the same cultural buy-in and could portray Dr. King…Dr. King is not just a prominent African American, he’s a prominent American. Why can’t an American play another prominent American?
We could point out the fact that colorism is a thing and that people back then (and certainly today) believed that those with lighter skin were smarter, better looking, and further more, more human than someone who was dark skinned. We could point out that part of King’s power came from forcing people to take him seriously as a dark skinned man. We could also point out that stripping King of this blackness pisses all over his legacy and achievements as a black American man, and that having a white man play him in a play which takes place the night before he got shot by a white man is, frankly, in extremely poor taste.
We could say all of this, but we won’t. Instead, we’ll point out that for all of Oatman’s rants about comparing races and wanting an unbiased look at how one race would portray him versus another (ugh), only the white actor’s name is listed on the play’s website.
But mi.lk, you might say. I, a Young Liberal who attends College In The City, fail to see what the big fuss is about. Race is merely a construct, and all black productions of traditionally white plays go down all the time. Oatman was just doing his artsy fartsy thang. Why are people so butt hurt?
The issue here is erasure. Katori Hall has written several articles about the incident, stating her disproval and disgust with the entire ordeal. Although she did not explicitly state that the actors for both King and the maid, Camae, must be black, “reading comprehension and good-old scene analysis would lead any director to cast black or darker-complexioned actors. Hell, even in Russia, where black actors are scarce, the theater moved mountains to cast two black actors for the reading.” She’s made it a point to add the characters races in further additions of the play.
Theatre’s power comes from its ability to bring its audience into the moment. In a well done production, actors we lose ourselves in that dark theatre and become one with the actors. We come to empathize with them.
And empathy is exactly what the black community needs. At a time when fourteen year old girls are being dragged out of their chairs, and people claim that she deserves it for doing what kids do and rebelling against a teacher, or when an extremely ugly and terrifying series on threats against the black students of Mizzou encourages YikYakers to join in the “fun,” people still seem to think that black people don’t understand pain. But sure Oatman, contribute to the seventy percent of white roles within the theatre community. Because as we all know, we need to be more understanding of white people.
TL;DR? Here’s the short version of our little tale, to be summ’d up in iambic pentamet-er (Shakespeare used dashes too, shut up): Black people can’t have nothing, not the nae-nae, not durags, not cornrows nor greens. Not even our activists are safe from the horror of white people trying (and failing) to be deep.
Images via Savannah Now, Tumblr, Playbuzz, Rolex Blog, and Wikipedia.