“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.
Had the director and school reached out to this living playwright, they would have learned that I actually believe that race is a mental construct and that I have urged race-revolutionary casting for a few works. In fact, when I received news in London of the white King, I had just left a workshop at the National for my play Children of Killers, about the aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. I had urged the directors to cast for diversity within their youth groups, providing the caveat that casting must drive home the major theme: that lines of identity were arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers, rendering signifiers of “racial” identity unreliable. However, with the majority of my work, what I have committed to is visually articulating a certain skin experience.
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.
It’s true that Oatman only fell halfway off the “turn-up” truck; the white actor was indeed sharing the role with another black actor. But the fact that this mystery actor has remained nameless further demonstrates the erasure of the black body in this experiment. Even on the school newspaper’s website, only the white actor’s name is listed.
Theater is a sacred space, with audience members sitting in the same room, breathing the same air, bearing witness to an experience that is unlike their own. Tears streaming down an actor’s face trigger the rising sting behind our own eyes and a growing pang of empathy in our own hearts. But studies have shown that people think the black body is impervious to pain. Perhaps because people think we do not feel pain, we are forced to bear it more.
This is why I tell the stories of my people to build a bridge over our country’s ever widening racial empathy gap. Theater has been my way of demanding empathy for a people so often robbed of it. I believe that giving a black body the physical space to safely breathe puts value in black lives during a time of continued debasement. Audiences of all backgrounds are forced to see the humanity of us, whether they like it or not.
Now, the devil’s lawyer will say, “But Katori, we are all human beings and we should be able to step into the shoes of other humans who are unlike us. That’s how we can eradicate racism! I mean, haven’t you seen Hamilton? Brown people are playing white presidents now. Why can’t we play King?”
So-called nontraditional casting has given birth to the “black versions” of plays written for white actors. But “black versions” are a direct response to the persistent exclusion and lack of roles for black actors working in the dramatic arts, and only further highlight the historically racist programming practices of American theater. “Nontraditional casting” puts forth a pervasive misconception: that plays with roles for black protagonists are a) not good enough, b) won’t sell or, worse, c) don’t even exist.
And though I applaud Hamilton for its use of race-revolutionary casting, let us not forget that brown bodies are still being used to further mythologize and perpetuate the narratives of dead white men, historically and currently the most privileged group in American society. Furthermore, having white actors take on roles written specifically for actors of color will never reset the historical record that 75 percent of roles cast in the American theater are for white men.
To answer Oatman’s thesis, of course, white actors can have a “cultural buy-in” to King—we all do—but this playwright’s intention was to extend an exquisite privilege to an audience: to be in the Lorraine Motel, Room 306, with an extraordinary ordinary black man. Brown skin carries with it a certain history and experience. Those who saw “the white version” of The Mountaintop were robbed of that opportunity.
I suppose this is what breaks my heart most of all. We live in a world where a director wants to measure the impact of King’s words coming from a black body versus a white one. Does this director think that an audience wouldn’t accept them from a black body?
Even in the theater, we are still fighting silencing, erasure. But our experiences and the brown skin that shapes them need to be witnessed. Our stories are worthy of that pedestal we call the stage, and our 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.
Katori Hall is a dramatist whose works include The Mountaintop, The Blood Quilt, Pussy Valley, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning and Our Lady of Kibeho. She recently wrapped her film debut, Arkabutla, and is currently in preproduction for a film adaptation of her play Hurt Village. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.