When A White Actor Goes To “The Mountaintop”

October 29th, 2015 § 18 comments

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

Robert Branch and Camila Christian in The Mountaintop at Kent State University

Robert Branch and Camila Christian in The Mountaintop at Kent State University

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?

Wasn’t the school in violation of the licensing agreement, in this case with Dramatists Play Service? Well, that depends upon how you interpret the contract and the play text. While the usual language about not making any changes was in place, it happens that the script doesn’t explicitly state that Dr. Martin Luther King is to be played by a black actor. Needless to say, most people would assume that to be implicit when hiring someone to play a civil rights leader who has been gone less than fifty years. But it was not absolutely specified. DPS informed me that as a result of the Kent State production, Mountaintop contracts going forward will carry language stating that both characters are to be played by black actors – unless permission to do otherwise is requested and granted.

Robert Branch as Dr. Martin Luther King in the Kent State University production of The Mountaintop

Robert Branch as Dr. Martin Luther King in the Kent State University production of The Mountaintop

So with this production already in the rearview mirror, what are some of the takeaways from this? The first is that even when it seems obvious, if playwrights wish for certain roles to be played by actors of certain, ages, genders, race, ethnicity or disability, they need to make it very clear in their script and give clear instructions to their agents and their licensing house as well. Apparently you can’t be too careful.

While it is quite surprising to imagine Dr. King, or Malala Yousafzai, or Cesar Chavez played by white actors, let’s remember that we are now in the post-Hamilton era, which suggests to the narrowminded that roles meant for people of color can now be played by white actors if traditionally (or historically) white characters can be played by actors of color. I would, and frequently do, argue that this is a false equivalency.

Could such specificity lead to playwrights declaring that their characters can only be played by white actors? Yes, and whether we like it or not, that’s their right. For as long as work is under copyright, it is the decision of the author (or their estate) to decide what may be done with or to their work. Yes, that may seem to stifle creativity on the part of directors and limit opportunities for actors in some works, but in the theatre in the U.S. – as opposed to film or television – the authors own their plays and have the final word.

Michael Oatman

Michael Oatman

So it’s interesting to note that Michael Oatman, who directed the Kent State Mountaintop, is a playwright, and that his bio on the Kent State site doesn’t list directing credits, only writing credits. One has to wonder if in the wake of this production, Oatman had a playwright to playwright conversation with Hall, who now has explicit protection to prevent this situation from recurring – although not completely extinguishing the possibility of racial revision of the characters at some point in the future with her consent. Not knowing Oatman’s work, I wonder whether he either has asserted his authorial protections on productions, or desires to protect his own plays, or whether he welcomes the reworking of racial representation in the stories he seeks to tell.

There’s another key takeaway here, regarding academic productions, and that is that universities are not immune from the protections afforded by copyright law, and licensing agreements. While a scene may be tackled in a classroom setting in ways that may not fully comport with the text, when work is presented before an audience, the rules apply to everyone. I have heard tales of college productions, directed by faculty and by students, that flout the stipulation of works under copyright, and while the Kent State Mountaintop managed to get its six performances in before anyone with authority over the work, or in the broader theatrical community, caught on, academic theatre is a huge market and playwrights don’t want to see their work distorted there anymore than they would in a professional production. That’s not to say that directors with new ideas shouldn’t pitch them. But they have to be prepared to stick with the letter and spirit of the original text if approval isn’t forthcoming, or move on to a work where they can gain that approval, or which has entered the public domain, in which case they can do anything they like.

A final observation, based solely on seeing the two pieces I’ve referred to online. I find it curious that the Akron newspaper’s two photos both include the white actor playing Dr. King, Robert Branch (one which includes Cristal Christian, the black actress playing Camae, the housekeeper), but that there’s no photo of the black actor. The same situation crops up in the interview on the Kent State site – Oatman is interviewed, as are Branch and Christian. Again, no mention of the alternate Dr. King. Indeed, he’s not even named. The same holds true for an article on the site KentWired.com.

Is it possible that whoever the black actor was happened to be unavailable to be interviewed or photographed? Did these media outlets choose to excise him from their coverage? Was this accident, or strategy? Or did the double casting concept get abandoned at some point in the process, since it is only described in an August feature?

As this story becomes more widely known, I imagine members of the creative community will be reaching out to Michael Oatman to better understand the rationale behind his approach, and perhaps to share their views on this concept for The Mountaintop. Hall has posted on Facebook in regards to posts about this production that “an article,” presumably by her, is forthcoming; I await it eagerly. For those upset that this approach was ever taken, the Kent State production can now be the source for worthwhile conversations about representations of race on stage and how much latitude a director has with any script, ethically and legally, when staging copyrighted works.

We’re not going to see a repeat of this particular case unless Katori Hall says it’s OK. And maybe we’ll see much more specific character descriptions in scripts in the wake of this incident – but hopefully we’ll also see playwrights making clear when they not only allow, but encourage, racially diverse casts, as a signal to directors that diversity and indeed variety is desirable.

Update, November 9, 3 pm: Earlier today, the website The Root published Katori Hall’s own account of learning about the Kent State production, her conversation with the director and her response to what took place. It is essential reading.

Update, November 16, 5 pm: In a report in the Akron Beacon Journal, it was revealed that no black actor appeared in Kent State production of The Mountaintop. Click here for more details, including Katori Hall’s reaction.

Thanks to David Dubov-Flinn who first brought the Kent State production to my attention.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts School of Drama and interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.


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