Culture

Black Playwright Says No to White Actor Playing MLK

A scene from Hamilton (broadwaybox.com)

The irony isn’t only rich, it’s tragic. The smash Broadway hit Hamilton has reignited interest in the Founding Fathers by using hip-hop and casting without regard to race. Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are all portrayed by non-whites. President Obama, who attended the play, has lauded it as a “fabulous” breakthrough event.

But the reception another play has gotten shows old thought patterns: A prominent black playwright has condemned a black director for using a white actor in a black role. At a time when hyper-sensitivity to race is rampant on campuses (see Missouri, Ithaca, Yale), director Michael Oatman bravely decided to double-cast the Kent State production of The Mountaintop with a black actor and a white actor playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before his assassination. (Here is photo of the white actor portraying Dr. King.)

The play is a powerful exploration of the human side of someone who was a Founding Father of the civil-rights movement. Oatman, who is black and produced the play for the local African Community Theater, said he “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.” He added: “I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds.”

But the reaction from Katori Hall, the play’s author, was swift and scathing. She said casting a white to play King for any length of time on stage “echoes this pervasive erasure of the black body and the silencing of a black community — theatrically and also, literally, in the world.” She called the decision “disrespectful,” and said that while she “never designated in the play text that King and [the hotel maid] Camae be played by black actors, reading comprehension and good-old scene analysis would lead any director to cast black or darker-complexioned actors.” Hall has now added a clause to the licensing agreement of her play stipulating that any future casting of a white in it “requires the prior approval of the author.”

The reaction from Katori Hall, the play’s author, was swift and scathing.

Well. Talk about a reactionary perspective. The same logic applied to Broadway would dictate that most plays continue with lily-white Broadway casting and old-fashioned librettos. The unorthodox music and diverse casting in Hamilton has been a breath of fresh air and a financial windfall: The play brought in $57 million in advance ticket sales in its first three months. Britain’s Guardian newspaper asks: “When was the last time you witnessed 1,300 wealthy theatergoers totally captivated — not answering their cellphones, not asleep, not talking to their dates — by a libretto written completely in verse? . . . Using hip-hop, [playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda] has reworked not just white history, but white music and drama, and the result is both wonderfully appealing and a challenge to the American theater: If we take the time to listen to minority voices, we’ll hear some amazing, utterly new things.”

#share#Who knows, maybe “amazing, utterly new things” might come from updating discussion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message by bringing in other perspectives. But today’s politically correct rules — protesting students at the University of Missouri are now being segregated according to race — the Left can’t even keep its own members together without falling prey to racial separatism.

No one can be certain what Martin Luther King would say about all this. But his words were unequivocal and never taken back. In his famous 1963 speech, he told of his “dream” that his four children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is up to those who would depart from that standard to carry the burden of proof that their alternative does more to bring us together.

– John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review.

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