Memphis playwright Katori Hall is furious at a director’s “tone deaf and disrespectful” choice to cast a white actor as Martin Luther King in her play.
Hall was dismayed to learn that Ohio’s Kent State University had ‘broken a world record’ by using a white actor to play the lead in a production of her Olivier award-winning play, The Mountaintop.
“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,” she posted online. “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.”
The play’s director Michael Oatman, who is black, defended his decision in an interview on the university’s website, saying he wanted to “explore the issue of racial ownership and authenticity”. He also maintains that his color blind casting honors King’s wish that “we all be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin”
In three of his six productions of the play King was portrayed by a black actor; in the other three a white actor took on the role.
“I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds,” Oatman explains.
Despite the director’s attempt to view the civil rights leader through a radically post-racial lens, Hall still maintains that Oatman’s depiction of her script is “yet another erasure of the black body”.
“Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless,” she continued. “Especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world.’
As a response to this incident, Hall has now added a clause to her licensing agreement that states: “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.”