Pan-African Studies supports casting of white MLK


Cristal Christian (left) and Robert Branch (right) rehearse scenes from the play, The Mountaintop, on Wedneday, Sept. 23, 2015.  

Emily Mills

Kent State’s Department of Pan-African Studies said in a statement Friday it supports director Michael Oatman’s decision to cast a white actor to play Martin Luther King, Jr. in a recent production of Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop.”

The statement, authored by Amoaba Gooden, chair of the Pan-African Studies’ department, said Oatman, a part-time theater professor who is African-American, has the right to artistic expression as a director.

“The director’s attempt to probe how we hear the national discussion on race ultimately raises questions about the role of theatre, its writers, producers and performers in that conversation,” Gooden said in the statement. “Ultimately, what we envisioned is a conversation with the director’s use of creative artistic expression, the authenticity of the play expressed, and the playwright’s vision.”

The play, which premiered Sept. 25 and ran through Oct. 4, is a fictional retelling of the night before King’s assassination and takes place in his hotel room.

Oatman cast two actors for King’s role: Justin Fraley, an African-American actor, and Robert Branch, a white actor, both from Cleveland.

The casting made national headlines after Hall published an essay with The Root, an African-American news, opinion, politics and culture magazine.

“Even in the theater, (African-Americans) are still fighting silencing, erasure,” she said in the essay. “But our experiences and the brown skin that shapes them need to be witnessed. Our stories are worthy of that pedestal we call the stage, and our black bodies must stand unaltered in that spotlight, so that our skin, like King’s, can reflect back our humanity and we can all see ourselves in it.”

Hall added a clause to her licensing agreement requiring King be played by African-American actors. 

Emily Mills is the managing editor of The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].