Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Mountaintop

Photo: Bob Jagendorf
Can a white man play Martin Luther King?

There has been some controversy surrounding an Ohio University production of Katori Hall's play The Mountaintop and Michael Oatman's casting of a white actor in the role of MLK, actually he dual cast the role using both a black and a white actor.

The play is set in its entirety in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the last day in the life of Martin Luther King.

The playwright called the decision "disrespectful".

Katori Hall's reaction

The Washington Post asked "As actors of color increasingly play traditionally white roles, breaking Broadway’s color barriers, should the opposite be true as well? Should a white man be allowed to play a black historical figure as important as Martin Luther King?" 

This comes on the heels Lin-Manual Miranda's successful play Hamilton and it's black and Hispanic cast of America's founding fathers. NYT Review

Is one acceptable and the other not?  Are there limits and should there be limits on the casting of roles based on race?  


Subsequent to my writing this post a performance of Jesus in India has been cancelled after demands by the playwright citing the "ethnic composition of the cast", the cast is white.  The playwright demanded that the university recast the play using an Asian cast, unfortunately Clarion University doesn't have a large Asian student population (less than 1% of the student population), and no Asians auditioned for the play.  The playwright, Lloyd Suh a Korean-American, said that "Clarion was distorting and disrespecting his work and, in doing so, perpetuating hostility against nonwhite performers."

The school had paid Lloyd Suh $500 for the rights to put on the play, a sum that will be refunded, but the school is also out $15,000 in pre-production costs. I certainly hope that the university will sue to recoup those costs, but I doubt it.

Imagine the reaction if a white playwright revoked performance rights for a mixed-race cast claiming that the play was written for white people. 

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