Monday, November 16, 2015

Casting of White Actor as MLK Jr. In Kent State Production Puts Director Michael Oatman in National Spotlight

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2015 at 8:33 AM

click to enlarge MICHAEL OATMAN
  • Michael Oatman
Ensemble Theatre is known, among other things, for its frequent use of non-traditional casting, which often refers to black actors playing traditionally white roles. While there is none of that in Ages of the Moon, which you can read our review of here, a recent production in the northeast Ohio area has received national attention for such a casting choice.

In The Mountaintop, a play by the black playwright Katori Hall, the lead role of Martin Luther King, Jr. was played by a white man. That choice, by the Cleveland-based director Michael Oatman, has garnered some national publicity and triggered a reaction of outrage from the playwright.

The play is set entirely in King’s room in the Lorraine Motel on the eve of his assassination in 1968, and seeks to plumb the depths of this ultimate icon of the black community. Director Oatman cast a local and accomplished white actor, Robert Branch, to play Dr. King.

As Oatman, an African-American and an adjunct professor of playwriting at KSU, has explained,” I wanted this casting choice to reflect King’s wish that we be judged by the content of our characters and not the color of our skin.” He sought to employ non-traditional casting as an “intellectual aspiration, a way to explore certain aspects of the play in a new way.”

But that argument apparently doesn’t hold water for the woman who wrote The Mountaintop. As she was quoted in an article in the Washington Times: “(This casting choice) echoes this pervasive erasure of the black body and the silencing of a black community—theatrically and also, literally, in the world.” She went on to say, “Oatman’s experiment proved to be a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise…”

What do others think? Well, Celeste Cosentino, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre and a white woman, sides with Ms. Katori. Even though Cosentino has recently cast black men in conventionally white roles (Greg White as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Kyle Carthens as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby), she indicates she would not make the casting choice Oatman did.

As Cosentino explains, “I believe non-traditional casting can work when the race of the character is not germane to the story. Martin Luther King, Jr. was and is an icon in the African-American community for specific reasons. And I don’t believe casting a white man in that role does the character justice.”

For his part, Oatman welcomes the controversy: “All the criticism is justified. But as theater people, we often make provocative choices and we can’t be worried about a negative response. We have to roll the dice and take the consequences.”

Let the discussion continue…

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