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Martin Luther King
MLK: definitely not whitevia Wiki Commons

Someone cast a white actor to play Martin Luther King

Understandably, the writer who penned the play wasn’t impressed and described the decision as ‘erasure of the black body’

This isn’t a unique story to tell. This year there’ve been plenty of allegations surrounding the erasure of black stories – Stonewall re-casting trans woman Martha P. Johnson as a white man – or Channel 4 being accused of pinching a woman of colour’s documentary about Muslim drag queens. This time, charges of appropriation and erasure have been thrown at the feet of a play.

Writer Katori Hall has accused Kent State University of perpetuating the “pervasive erasure of the black body and the silencing of a black community” by casting a white man as Martin Luther King in her play The Mountaintop. In a brilliant essay for The Root, she described the casting as “a disservice to not just Dr King but an entire community.”

The university production’s director, Michael Oatman, defended the decision to cast a white and a black actor however, telling the Guardian that the choice went “deeper than just casting a white man in the role of MLK.” Apparently, it was supposed to be provocative. In a statement Oatman released in August, he said he chose a white man “to explore the issue of racial ownership and authenticity”.

He continued: “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.”

It’s not as easy as all that though. Tensions are high surrounding whitewashing and you have to have an exceedingly good reason for not casting a minority in a minority role. Particularly one whose whole tale is rooted in racism and the monumental fight against it. 

Following the dispute surrounding the casting, Hall has added a clause in The Mountaintop’s licensing agreement stating that: “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.” Guess that settles it then.