The casting of a white actor as Martin Luther King in an Ohio university production of Katori Hall’s acclaimed play The Mountaintop was “a disservice to not just Dr King but an entire community”, the playwright has said.
Hall wrote an essay for the African American cultural website the Root on Monday about Kent State University’s production of her play, which dramatizes the night before King was assassinated in 1968.
Hall told the Guardian that director Michael Oatman’s decision to double-cast the six-show production with a black actor and a white actor as King went “deeper than just casting a white man in the role of MLK”.
“I just really feel as though it echoes this pervasive erasure of the black body and the silencing of a black community – theatrically and also, literally, in the world,” she said.
Oatman, who like Hall is black, said in a statement in August promoting the play that he chose a white actor for the production “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 said. “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 did not respond to a request for comment, but Hall said she had a respectful phone call with the director about a month after he staged the play at the university’s Department of Pan-African Studies’ African Community Theatre from late September to early October.
She said that Oatman did not discuss the decision to use a white actor with her before the play ran and called the decision “disrespectful”.
Hall said she thought that if a director was going to experiment like Oatman did, then they should include a discussion with the audience or create another forum to measure the success of such an exercise.
“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,” Hall wrote.
Hall learned about Oatman’s decision to use a white actor in the production after the show had closed. She immediately notified her agent, who contacted the theatre licensing service Dramatists Play Service, which then wrote to the university questioning its decision.
Since the Kent State University production ran, Hall has adjusted The Mountaintop’s licensing agreement to say:
“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.”
She said that the issue of representation is a common discussion topic for theatremakers of color, but rarely gets attention beyond that community. The decision to cast a white man as one of the country’s best-known civil rights figures, however, changed that.
“I feel as though a lot of theatremakers were a bit appalled at the choice that the director made – and that it was supported so wholeheartedly by the institution,” Hall said. “So it was really a moment to talk about playwright intention, but to then, beyond that, talk about much bigger issues, about not only being a black artist but also being a black person in America.”