Casting of white MLK in ‘The Mountaintop’ play sparks national outrage


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

Hannah Armenta

Controversy over the casting of a white actor to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Kent State production of “The Mountaintop” has been ignited in the national media after the playwright spoke out against the selection in an essay for

“The Mountaintop,” put on by the Department of Pan-African Studies, is a fictional retelling of King on the eve of his assassination.

The show, set in his hotel room, originally premiered on Sept. 25, 2015, and ran until Oct. 4, 2015, in the African Community Theater located in Oscar Richie Hall.

Director Michael Oatman, a part-time theater professor, cast two actors for the role of King: Justin Fraley, an African American actor, and Robert Branch, a white actor, both of whom are from Cleveland.

According to a press release from the Department of Pan-African studies, Oatman said he knew casting Branch was risky, but he felt it would also open up a bigger conversation about race.

“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,” he said in the press release.

Katori Hall, “The Mountaintop” playwright, wrote in her essay that she found out about the casting through a friend on Oct. 4, 2015, through an email and was outraged.

Although there wasn’t an original stipulation the role must be played by someone of color, she said she felt it could be assumed the role shouldn’t be played by someone who wasn’t African-American.

“Neither the director nor the school consulted me or Dramatists Play Service regarding this experiment,” she said.

Hall has now added a new clause to her licensing agreement, requiring both actors to be played by African-American or black actors unless there was prior approval of the author. 

Hannah Armenta is the editor of The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected]