In the many press accounts of director Michael Oatman casting a white man to play Dr. Martin Luther King in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, stories have all acknowledged Oatman’s original concept of splitting the role between black and white actors. His intent was, in his words:
“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.”
That narrative has prevailed, even when Katori Hall let it be known that she did not and would not ever approve of a white actor playing King in her play. Just as I had in my original post on this incident, she wondered why the black actor sharing the role was so little in evidence. Even after speaking with Oatman, Hall wrote:
“It’s true that Oatman only fell halfway off the ‘turn-up’ truck; the white actor was indeed sharing the role with another black actor. But the fact that this mystery actor has remained nameless further demonstrates the erasure of the black body in this experiment. Even on the school newspaper’s website, only the white actor’s name is listed.”
As it turns out, the reason this black actor is so scarce is because no black actor performed in the role of Martin Luther King at Kent State. As part of an interview with Oatman, the Akron Beacon Journal reports:
“At Kent State, Oatman originally double cast the King role, with white actor Robert Branch for three performances and a black actor for five shows. When more than one black actor dropped out due to family and other personal issues, Branch, whom Oatman described as one of the best actors he’s ever seen, assumed all eight performances.”
Even if one gives credence to Oatman’s intellectual basis for attempting to split the role, it evaporated along with the unnamed black actor, regardless of Branch’s talent. At that point, the already unjustifiable production should have been irrevocably abandoned, since the entire conceptual underpinning had come undone. What Oatman did was not a half-measure, as Hall was apparently led to believe, as we were all led to believe, but indeed the complete erasure of a black body as she had feared. There was no rationalization left, yet despite the intense press interest since Hall published her essay on TheRoot.com, Oatman at best quietly allowed a myth to be sustained, or at worst actively sought to keep the truth of the production secret to anyone interested, until this interview.
That this fact is virtually an aside in the Beacon Journal’s follow-up, which largely affords an unfettered opportunity for Oatman to advance his reasoning yet again, with nothing but quotes from Hall’s essay as pushback, seems a conscious effort to minimize the facts of the narrative. In citing supportive messages from friends on Oatman’s Facebook page, and noting that there were only a few walkouts as if that made the casting acceptable, the Beacon Journal is complicit in failing to address the willful lack of fidelity to the playwright’s intent. Where are the quotes from Hall’s friends, who were outraged. In addition, by saying at one point of Hall that “she railed,” rather than “she wrote,” there is also an implication that Hall’s thoughts on this issue were somehow not presented in an “acceptable” manner, another unfortunate choice.
So the summary of the Kent State Mountaintop story is: the creative decision was faulty to begin with, ultimately abandoned (no matter what the reason) and possibly kept secret even as scrutiny was focused on the production. Whether by omission or misdirection, Oatman has compounded his troubling creative decision immeasurably.
Though Oatman has said he wouldn’t make this particular choice again, he seems unbowed by the response from Hall and the playwriting community. He told the Journal:
“I think artists get too touchy about this kind of stuff,” he said. “I think whenever you make a controversial decision like this you have to allow the audience their space to react as they’re going to react. That’s what theater is about.”
If a director’s ethical and legal responsibility to other artists is dismissed as being “touchy,” indeed by someone who is primarily a playwright, any questions about Oatman’s judgment in this case should no longer be in question. He finds widely accepted professional practices to be a nuisance, when they are fundamental to the field he works in.
If his goal was to court controversy, Oatman has probably succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, and there may be more yet to come. But if his goal was to illuminate Katori Hall’s play for audiences, it’s quite clear that he failed, even if people applauded. He may have thought originally that what he was doing wasn’t a stunt, but in the end, that’s just what it turned out to be.
Update, November 16, 4:45 pm: In sharing my post on Facebook, Katori Hall prefaced it, in part, with the following statement:
“…When I spoke to Michael Oatman via phone October 27th, he never disclosed the fact that the black actor never went on, even when I questioned the validity of his social experiment of seeing if the ‘words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds.’
I learned that the black actor never went on when Oatman was interviewed Friday night by Don Lemon on CNN. Surprise, surprise.
Many journalists in the media have portrayed me as outraged (The Wrap, NY Daily News, Washington Times, Playbill). I have supposedly ‘fumed’. I have supposedly ‘slammed.’ Shout out to TIME and TheRoot.com who used much more honest language. Yes, I criticized the casting choice and yes I explained my position why….
Yes, it is unfortunate that in 2015, a young black female artist who demands that her work be respected and puts forth a valid and articulate response is characterized as merely throwing a temper tantrum.”
Howard Sherman is the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts School of Drama.