Playwright Reacts to the White Casting of MLK in The Mountaintop

Katori Hall compares the casting of a white actor as Martin Luther King Jr. in a production of her play to the erasure of black bodies on the streets of America.

Cristal Christian and Robert Branch rehearse scenes from the play The Mountaintop at Kent State University in Ohio Sept. 23, 2015.
Cristal Christian and Robert Branch rehearse scenes from the play The Mountaintop at Kent State University in Ohio Sept. 23, 2015. Itzel Leon for

“I remember he had the prettiest skin I had ever seen. Flawless. So chocolate you could see yourself reflected in it,” Carrie Hall, my mother, recounted wistfully. On March 28, 1968, she had caught a glimpse of Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to Memphis, Tenn., to lead a march for sanitation workers. It quickly descended into a police-provoked riot fueled by tear gas and bullets. My mother remembers fleeing for her life to the safety of her home, mere blocks from the Lorraine Motel. Seven days later, King would be murdered at that very motel, a sniper’s bullet piercing his flawless brown skin.

My mother’s brush with history became the bedrock of my play The Mountaintop, a reimagining of King’s last night on earth before his assassination. A conversation between the civil rights leader and a hotel maid named Camae weaves through the night as King wrestles with the weight of his legacy.

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.

Rage would come in the morning, but that night my jet-lagged self was fit to be tired. A weak sigh was followed by a quick forwarding of the email to my agent, who promptly reached out to Dramatists Play Service, which quickly sent a damning letter to the university about the race-revisionist casting. “While that might be considered an interesting experiment, it is also—quite clearly—not what the author wrote or intended.” Well, a playwright’s good intentions be damned.

While it is true that I never designated in the play text that King and Camae be played by black actors, 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.

Neither the director nor the school consulted me or Dramatists Play Service regarding this experiment (though I have been told by a Twitter follower who lodged a complaint that the university claimed that I had spoken to the director and had given him creative license: #baldfacedlie).

In the wake of the Kent State production, the following clause has been added to my licensing agreement: 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.”

Almost a month after the production’s closing, I was finally able to speak with Oatman, who expressed that he felt there was no “prohibition against nontraditional casting.” When I asked him “Why?” he once again responded, “I just didn’t think there was. I wanted to see if a white actor, or a light-skinned actor, had the same cultural buy-in and could portray Dr. King.” (Huh!?!?) “Dr. King is not just a prominent African American, he’s a prominent American. Why can’t an American play another prominent American?”

Oatman continued on, detailing the reactions. A lot of curious folks stayed to see this white King, but many walked out. There was a trio of older black women who stormed out during the intermission-less play, the commotion they made as they pushed past onlookers pulling focus from the actors onstage. Two plays were happening at once when there should only have been one.

If Oatman were truly interested in finding out how, as he said, the “words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds,” he lost a grand opportunity. No talkbacks were scheduled to truly measure the success of Oatman’s experiment about “racial ownership and authenticity.” With a playwright’s intention being dangerously distorted, Oatman’s experiment proved to be a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise for a paying audience.