‘The Mountaintop’ Playwright Katori Hall Understandably Upset After Learning That a White Actor Had Been Cast to Play Martin Luther King Jr.

Katori Hall
(Getty Images)

In 2009, playwright Katori Hall’s best known work The Mountaintop opened at Theatre503 in London to rave reviews and critical acclaim. The play, which is a fictional account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth, is set entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, the night before King is assassinated on April 4, 1968. Hall was inspired to create the work by her mother’s accounts of seeing King in person that same same year in Tennessee.

In a recent essay for The Root, Hall shares her dismay at learning that a local production at Kent State University had cast a white man to play Martin Luther King Jr.

Katori Hall
Cristal Christian and Robert Branch rehearse scenes from the play The Mountaintop at Kent State University in Ohio Sept. 23, 2015. Itzel Leon for KentWire.com via The Root.

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. 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.

Director Michael Oatman had indeed double-cast the role of King with a black actor and a white actor for a six-performance run at the university’s Department of Pan-African Studies African Community Theater. Kent State had broken a world record; it was the first Mountaintop production to make King white.

Rage would come in the morning, but that night my jet-lagged self was fit to be tired. A weak sigh was followed by a quick forwarding of the email to my agent, who promptly reached out to Dramatists Play Service, which quickly sent a damning letter to the university about the race-revisionist casting. “While that might be considered an interesting experiment, it is also—quite clearly—not what the author wrote or intended.” Well, a playwright’s good intentions be damned.

According to Hall, neither Oatman, nor Kent State had reached out to her about the casting decision, which she felt was “disrespectful.” In an August interview with The Guardian, Oatman attempted to justify his decision by saying the casting choice was 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.”

In that same article, Hall responds:

“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.”

The Kent State production has since prompted Hall to include a clause in her licensing agreement: ““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.”