IN REVIEW: The Coterie’s scintillating new MLK play is a must-see
What strikes you first about Kevin Willmott’s Becoming Martin, which the Coterie Theatre commissioned it for its 40th anniversary, is the sharp craftsmanship and concise economy of its language. The play’s portrait of the teenaged Martin Luther King, Jr. uses dialogue that sounds so natural that you can easily believe that, although this is technically a work of “historical fiction,” these might indeed have been words that young Martin uttered. (Some are in fact drawn from historical documents.)
The humble 75-minute drama attempts to re-create—with both historical accuracy and “poetic license”—the moment at which the precocious 15-year-old showed up at Morehouse College in the Fall of 1944. The world premiere production, which runs through October 21st at the Coterie’s intimate space at Crown Center, makes clear that this is one of those stories that was just “waiting to be told.” It is also one of the most powerful new pieces of drama I have seen in quite some time.
Kevin Willmott is not just a professor of film studies at The University of Kansas, he is a widely renowned playwright and screenwriter. His works have included not only a series of films of his own (including the jarringly wild and witty C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) but also collaborations with Spike Lee on the screenplays of Chi-Raq and, most recently, BlacKkKlansman. Having read the script for Becoming Martin before it opened (and having written about it here), I was enchanted by its warmly inventive analysis of the impetuous young King’s confrontation with formal education—and the precision with which it shows King grappling with the contradictions of traditional historical teachings both with the fundamentalist theology of his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., and with his own observations of the condition of African Americans in 1940s America.
Kevin describes, or rather “reenacts,” King’s introduction to the American economic system, as it applied to African Americans at the time, in a scene describing his experiences at a menial summer job. One is reminded of Gandhi’s vows of poverty, or of the eye-opening observations of capitalist exploitation that Che Guevara described in The Motorcycle Diaries: “At break time, I would listen to the men,” says young “M.L” (as he is called in the play). “Their conversations. I would watch them. I tried to feel—what they felt. Their despair, their camaraderie, their feeling of powerlessness, the hope that they had for their families. When my Boss called me a worthless black monkey. I would like to believe I graduated into their ranks. I had to take it like the other men. With no means to fight back. / It cripples you, leaving you something that no longer resembles—a man.” This experience is depicted as critical in M.L.’s decision, shortly before graduation, to follow his father and grandfather into the ministry. “Doctor Mays, sir—I know now, I can’t be on the sidelines,” he says. “I can’t be a spectator to the race problem. I have to be in the heat of it.”
Becoming Martin is as potent on the stage as it is on the page. Surrounded by a cast of veteran Kansas City actors, Aaron Ellis as M.L. serves as a brilliant catalyst, injecting energy into each scene by drawing others into his hyperactive world. He reminds you of comments you often hear about great leaders: They change the chemistry in the air just by walking into the room. Under Chip Miller’s skillful direction, we first see King as a twitchy adolescent, blurting out the first things that come into his head. As the play progresses, we watch his demeanor change; he becomes more pensive. By “senior year” Aaron’s movements have become flowingly graceful, and his speech-patterns are taking on a hint of the measured, deliberate cadences we recognize from the adult King. It is a savvy transformation that is part of what makes the play click.
As Benjamin Mays, Walter Coppage is thoughtful, probing and witty, with perhaps a tiny whiff of the self-importance that might have come with being a widely admired college president. Granvile O’Neal plays the earth-bound King, Sr. with a sort of heavy-heartedness that hints at a man trying to be a good father while holding onto his unwavering conservatism—for dear life. (Georgianna Londré Buchanan’s costume designs include a dapper grey suit for Mays at the outset and a more “serious” charcoal-to-black suit for King, Sr.) George Forbes brings eloquence to the role of Prof. George D. Kelsey, Morehouse’s School of Religion director, as he delights in telling Mays that the young King has “aced” his course on the Bible (to everyone’s surprise).
Sherri Roulette-Mosley is tender and doting as Sadie Mays, whose firm compassion lends calm to her husband’s hard-driving style. The attractive, sophisticated scenic design, by Jordan Janota and Kellie Fox, features a book-lined study upstage and a downstage dining-table that serves as a sort of “other space” throughout the play. Jarrett Bertoncin’s lighting design lends a naturalistic feel and David Kiehl’s sound design (which provides, among other things, important radio announcements) rounds out what is, overall, a beautifully conceived and executed production.
Becoming Martin runs at the Coterie Theatre through October 21st. For tickets call 816-474-6552 or go to TheCoterie.org.
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