Director Michael Oatman, who is black, had 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, Sept. 25-Oct. 4. The white actor was Robert Branch.
In an essay published Nov. 9 on the website The Root, Hall wrote, "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."
Hall continued, "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."
The Mountaintop ran on Broadway from October 2011 to January 2012, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett following an Olivier Award-winning London run. The play is set on the night before Dr. King was assassinated. The civil rights leader encounters a maid at his hotel who turns out to be the Angel of Death, offering him a vision of the future before she escorts him to the next world.
Hall wrote in her essay, "While it is true that I never designated in the play text that King and Camae be played by black actors, reading comprehension and good-old scene analysis would lead any director to cast black or darker-complexioned actors. Hell, even in Russia, where black actors are scarce, the theater moved mountains to cast two black actors for the reading." The university's website contains a statement from the director, saying, “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. 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.”
Hall wrote, "Almost a month after the production’s closing, I was finally able to speak with Oatman, who expressed that he felt there was no 'prohibition against nontraditional casting.' When I asked him 'Why?' he once again responded, 'I just didn’t think there was. I wanted to see if a white actor, or a light-skinned actor, had the same cultural buy-in and could portray Dr. King.' (Huh!?!?) 'Dr. King is not just a prominent African American, he’s a prominent American. Why can’t an American play another prominent American?'"
Hall called Oatman's experiment, "a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise for a paying audience" and added, "In the wake of the Kent State production, the following clause has been added to my 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.'"
She continued, "Black writers dedicated to using black bodies, who remain at the center of a devalued narrative, are committing a revolutionary act. We are using theater to demand a witnessing. Our experiences have been shaped by a ragged history, and dark skin has proved to be a dangerous inheritance. From Eric Garner to the Charleston Nine to the latest black girl slammed to the ground by a cop, our bodies have been used as a battlefield where the Civil War has mutated and continues to claim the lives of those who should have been freed from the sharp knife of racism centuries ago.
"The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body. Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless, especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world."
The playwright also paused to reflect on the Broadway hit Hamilton, which refracts American history through a contemporary and multicultural lense. "And though I applaud Hamilton for its use of race-revolutionary casting, let us not forget that brown bodies are still being used to further mythologize and perpetuate the narratives of dead white men, historically and currently the most privileged group in American society," she wrote.
Returning to Kent State's production, Hall said, "I suppose this is what breaks my heart most of all. We live in a world where a director wants to measure the impact of King's words coming from a black body versus a white one. Does this director think that an audience wouldn't accept them from a black body?"