Kent State University’s production of the play “The Mountaintop” that featured a white actor playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is facing criticism from the writer of the play, according to Time magazine on Wednesday. Dramatist Katori Hall has voiced anger and disappointment after learning that director Michael Oatman took the liberty to cast Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a white actor in addition to a black actor in the six shows.
“The Mountaintop” is a fictionalized account of King’s last night before his assassination in 1968. Oatman, who is black like Hall gave his reason for casting a white Martin Luther King. He said on Kent State University’s website, “I truly wanted to explore the issue of racial ownership and authenticity. I wanted the contrast. I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds.”
Oatman took the liberty of casting a black King without consulting with Hall before the play ran. Hall called the decision “disrespectful.” She contends that it excluded the few opportunities for black experiences to be told in the theater. She said that the casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body. She admitted her play was fictional, but the decision to cast a white man as one of the country’s best-known civil rights figures is disrespectful especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally.
The Guardian reported that Hall is outraged about the casting of a white actor as Martin Luther King in the Ohio university production of her acclaimed play, “The Mountaintop.” She said it was a disservice to not just Dr. King but to an entire community. Hall says she has now added a clause to the play’s licensing agreement dictating that both roles be played by black actors unless she has given approval for other casting choices. Hall has adjusted the play’s licensing agreement to read, “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.”
Hall said her play was to give audiences an authentic and historically accurate experience. Using a white man as King did not do that. People did attend the production to see the show out of curiosity, although it wasn’t well received by everyone and many shared Hall’s viewpoint. Some people walked out of the play because of their disgust.