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A White Man Went To ‘The Mountaintop’ At Kent State

Yes. We are now living in a time where colorblind casting can go both ways– or not. Last month Kent State (located in Ohio, of the top theatre and dance schools of the state) Department of Pan-African Studies’ African Community Theatre put on a production of Katori Hall‘s The Mountaintop. If you recall, The Mountaintop  is a fictional depiction of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s last night on earth set entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN on the eve of his assassination on April 4, 1968. In the show there are two main characters: Martin Luther King Jr. and the hotel maid, both suggested and implicitly meant for black actors/actresses (On Broadway Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett took on those roles). Kent State decided on a different approach.

Director Michael Oatman re-imagined the hit  play by double-casting the role with both a White and Black “Martin Luther King Jr.”  Yes, a White “Martin Luther King Jr.” During an interview with Kent State on the University’s website he talks about the motivation behind such a decision:

While Oatman understands that the piece may stir some controversy he also hopes that it stirs discussion about America’s original sin: race.  “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,” said Oatman about his non-traditional cast.  “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.”

Is this even allowed? Technically, yes. The script at the time never explicitly stated that the actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. has to be black (they have updated it since then), however implicitly it makes total sense. Everything Dr. King stood for was making America value the Black body because he was, too, a Black body. I don’t see how casting a White actor to play an historic figure such as Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good idea. The show was brought to Katori Hall via Twitter and she went on to say this;

Now I get we are at the point in time where Hamilton exists, that show in particular casting people of color in roles that would otherwise have been for traditionally White actors. As great of a move as that was, it does, unfortunately, open the floodgates for very narrow-minded people to think that roles meant for people of color can now be played by White actors if traditionally (and/or historically) White characters can be played by actors of color. This argument and reasoning however isn’t valid. The reason shows like Hamilton and The Mountaintop exist is to create those opportunities for actors of color that have been short sided by this business- to even the playing field. Not to give White actors even more opportunities. That literally defeats the purpose. It defeats what African-American and other playwrights of color have been trying to do for years.Kent Mountaintop

There is a lesson to take away from the Kent State casting though, even though at times it’s obvious, playwrights should include explicitly the ethnicities of actors they want in their plays. This is something I expect to see a lot more as African-Americans are making their unstoppable reign on and off Broadway this season, and we want to keep it that way.

Sound off in the comments below on your thoughts!

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