Acting Origins: MLK Jr.

I began my acting career playing a coat rack. When I showed up in her life, my second grade teacher, Mrs. Gardner, had long given up on actually teaching. She constantly looked surprised to find herself in a classroom. She mostly was interested in maintaining her bee hive, white jeans and Delorean. What a sight. When the door of that car raised up, she might as well have been arriving in an alien pod. All she needed was her own theme song.

School plays have no blocking

Anyway, Mrs. Gardner must have cleverly realized that if she put on a play, rehearsals would take up a lot of lesson time, and the performances would prove to our parents we were learning. She chose plays about people of historical importance. Elementary school actors are more like re-enactors and sports announcers, declaiming what’s happening. “Hark, it’s Plymouth Rock.” Haven’t they ever heard showing is so much better than telling? Elementary school theater also isn’t big on character-driven, relationship-based plays, probably because the idea isn’t to create a bunch of actors (heaven forbid). No, the school play is supposed to teach you something, but I’m not sure what.

Mrs. Gardner announced we were going to tell the life of Martin Luther King Jr. I remember the casting session. I don’t think there were auditions. Those had already happened when she’d heard us read at the beginning of the year. Those who read well, like Adriana and Duncan, were bound to be cast in the lead roles. Those who were struggling, like me and the kid with crossed eyes, had more uncertain theatrical futures.

MLK Jr.

When it came time to cast MLK Jr., though, I thought the choice was obvious. There was one black kid in the class. I remember us all staring at him, waiting for his name to be called. I guess Mrs. Gardner didn’t want to be accused of typecasting because she cast Steve, a wee blonde kid with glasses. I don’t remember Steve’s performance that well, probably because I was busy trying to accept him as the leader of the civil rights movement, but my parents say it was riveting, for all the wrong reasons. My mother still describes the dread she felt when they closed the theater doors.

Steve really got into it, and he had a keen sense of injustice for a seven year old. Although anyone who has been on a playground shouldn’t find that surprising. MLK Jr, as played by Steve, reminisced about his life during his final night before the assassination. In that momentous monologue, he utilizes a fine coat rack in his hotel room. I was that historic coat wrack, upstaging the entire solemn scene.

Demonstration of upstaging

The fact that Mrs. Gardner resorted to casting her students as inanimate objects really speaks to her ambivalence about teaching. I couldn’t read fluently until about third grade, so all I could do for her in the theatrical world was hold coats. Apparently, it didn’t bother her that MLK Jr. treated people like inanimate objects or worse that he hallucinated. Then again, she already had a white boy playing MLK Jr., so why not throw in a red headed girl frozen in the shape of a coat rack. I took my role seriously. There’s no such thing as a small role.

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