TheaterMania Logo
Home link
Special Reports

Broadway Shockers 2015: That Time a White Actor Played Martin Luther King Jr.

A university drama program has been to The Mountaintop and plenty of people mind.

As 2015 draws to a close, TheaterMania looks back on some of the most jaw-dropping stories of the year with the 2015 WTFs.

Cristal Christian and Robert Branch perform a scene from Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, directed by Michael Oatman, at Kent State University.
(© Michael Oatman)

When Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, a play about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final night on Earth, made its world premiere in 2009, no one dreamed that King would one day be played by a white actor. No one, that is, but director Michael Oatman, who double-cast his 2015 production at Kent State University: One King was black, the other was white.

Certainly we're not opposed to race-revolutionary casting (as exhibited by our rave for Hamilton), but one wonders what message Oatman was trying to send by portraying King (undoubtedly this nation's most notable campaigner for African-American civil rights) as a white dude.

"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," Oatman (a black man) said in an interview on the website of Kent State's Pan-African Studies department.

Katori Hall is the playwright of The Mountaintop.
(© David Gordon)

In response, Hall wrote an outraged editorial on The Root, declaring, "The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body." Certainly, she is right to be angry that Oatman never reached out to her before embarking on an experiment with her text. As it turns out, however, Oatman was legally within his right to cast the way he did as there was no clause in the licensing agreement specifying that King should be played by a black actor (one has since been added). The production finished its run unimpeded by Dramatists Play Service.

While we commiserate with Hall's frustration, we begrudgingly smirk at Oatman's exploitation of this loophole. If this theater thing doesn't work out, we think he has a bright career as an attorney in his future.