Jezebel- 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. The actor playing King stood there, hands outstretched, his skin far from chocolate but a creamy buff. At first glance I was like, “Unh-uh, maybe he light-skinned. Don’t punish the brother for being able to pass.”
But further Googling told me otherwise.
Director Michael Oatman had indeed double-cast the role of King with a black actor and a white actor for a six-performance run at the university’s Department of Pan-African Studies African Community Theater. Kent State had broken a world record; it was the first Mountaintop production to make King white.
“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.”
I am not one of those people that believes we need to remain true to the race of every person that has ever been portrayed by an actor. If you want to have Michael B. Jordan play a human torch despite it not being a fluid representation from a comic book series then have at it. If you want to have the black guy from 'The Wire' play the role of a customarily caucasian, suave, fictitious crime fighter than by all means. However much like anything else, there is a line that shouldn't be crossed, and making Martin Luther King Jr. white is at least a full million man march past that line. White dudes have been taking black roles for years. Just look at every New York City based sitcom from the 80's and 90's. White actors don't need more work. They have already been unjustly receiving it since the dawn of cinema. White is pretty much the default race for any thespian, so can we let African Americans play the roles that are undoubtedly not only better, but ONLY suited for them? I know people are tired of talking about race, and I agree, but when you change the skin color of the most famous civil right's activist in history you are kind of bringing it upon yourself.
I don't even know why I am the one that is upset about this. Shouldn't there have been an entire theatre of people angrily stomping their feet once a white guy came out to play MLK? Since we are talking about fluidity, shouldn't this production company have made sure the audience from each night had a similar experience? You can't have a white MLK and a black MLK. Let me guess, the black one is the understudy? Probably made him ride to the theatre in the back of the bus too. If you are going to be racially insensitive at least be 100% racially insensitive. Ain't no such thing as halfway crooks, even if what is being robbed is black culture. If black history was a pair of socks, then Kent State University just stole one sock, and everyone knows that's more fucked up than stealing both.
Plays are already at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to entertainment value. With the crowd interaction, set changes, and intermissions it's already hard enough to emotionally invest yourself in them. There's no animation or production value that can make a bad play worthwhile. They don't have the benefit of a second take in case they screw up their lines. Plays basically stink unless they are executed flawlessly. Well having the main character, a man fighting for the rights of black men everywhere, a role COMPLETELY predicated on race, played by someone of the wrong skin color is a pretty fatal flaw. I probably wouldn't even realize what play I was watching until the "I have a dream..." speech. I'll tell you this though, when I did figure it out I would have ruined that showing faster than a black woman in a movie theatre.
In August, Oatman billed the decision to cast both a white and black actor as 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.” But needless to say, Hall remains unimpressed with the decision. In an interview with the Guardian, she said.
Listen, saying that he was trying to fulfill Dr. King's wish that we all be judged by the content of our character and all that jazz is a fair attempt at a justification. However, something tells me if we had a chance to ask Martin Luther King, Jr. who he wanted to play him in a movie or play prior to his death he wouldn't said Dr. Phil. I am pretty sure his actual wish was that society became better at accepting race, not worse at acknowledging it. Plus, this guy's got way too much swag for a white man...