When A White Actor Goes To “The Mountaintop”

Howard Sherman

People are dumbfounded. People are incredulous. People are angry.

In the past few hours, a month-old story began circulating on social media about a production of Katori Hall’s widely produced The Mountaintop, specifically a story from the Akron Beacon-Journal about a production of the play at Kent State University in late September and early October. What has everyone so riled up? The two photos from the production of Hall’s two-character play about Dr. Martin Luther King’s imagined encounter with a motel housekeeper on the night before his assassination show a white male in both photos. And it’s not an error by the paper.

For his production, under the auspices of the African Community Theatre at Kent State, Michael Oatman who is the company creative director this year, said that he had double cast the role of Dr. King, with a black actor performing for three shows and a white actor performing for three shows. In an interview on the university website, Oatman explained his concept:

While Oatman understands that the piece may stir some controversy he also hopes that it stirs discussion about America’s original sin: race. “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,” said Oatman about his non-traditional cast.  “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.”

How was this allowed to happen? First off, no one apparently raised the issue during the two-weekend run. Despite appearing in a general circulation paper and online on both the paper’s site and the school’s site, it seems that there was not an immediate rush on anyone’s part to question this creative decision. Was this because Oatman is African-American and the African Community Theatre operates under the auspices of the school’s Department of Pan-African Studies, and so it was assumed that this approach was sanctioned?

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