The Man in Room 306
By Craig Alan Edwards
Through May 13
555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
Martin Luther King loved baseball. And pillow fights.
The iconic Baptist minister, and preacher of nonviolent protest was a human being with doubts, fears, and quirks.
A one-man show featuring King, “The Man in Room 306,” is at Luna Stage through May 13: it’s Luna Stage’s third production of the play.
This April marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee, and since he was assassinated the next day, April 4, 1968.
And the production also bookends Artistic Director Cheryl Katz’s time at the West Orange theater company. Montclairite Ari Laura Kreith will take over as Luna’s artistic director at the end of June. Luna Stage presented the official world premiere of the one man play by Craig Alan Edwards, who also performed in it, in 1995, after a friend of Katz’s who saw a one-day performance in New York City suggested she bring it to Luna’s then Artistic Director and founder Jane Mandel.
Ten years ago, for the 40th anniversary of King’s death, Luna revived the play, with Edwards performing and Katz, by then director of play development, directing. Luna then brought it to New York City.
In 2013, when Mandel stepped down, Katz became first associate artistic director and then, in 2013, artistic director.
This spring’s production is the first time it has been directed and performed with a different creative team than it had originally, Katz said.
The anniversary is what primarily drove her to program the play, she said, though the bookending of her time with Luna does make the production bittersweet.
Two things keep Katz coming back to the play: One is that “the dream has not been realized,” she said. Another is that for the first time, Katz finds herself wondering how, if King had lived, and were 89 today, and succeeded with the poor people’s campaign, how the world would be different — or not.
The play takes place in real time, in King’s room at the Lorraine Motel, right before he is called and told that there is a large crowd waiting for him at Mason Temple University and he needs to come speak.
Most of the time, people only hear a little bit of the Mountaintop speech.Katz and the playwright, knowing the speech was largely extemporized, wondered what had been going on in King’s mind before he gave the speech.
King talks to the audience, as if the audience is alone with King’s private thoughts, dealing with internal and external pressures weighing on him: his unpopular stance on the Vietnam War (he opposed it); trouble with the FBI; and dissent among his staff, all while planning a poor people’s march in Washington that he hoped would bring the nonviolent approach back into prominence.
Jamil A.C. Mangan, who plays King, and performed in Athol Fugard’s “‘Master Harold’… and the Boys” in 2014, said that the audience of this play is his scene partner, “someone to bounce off of, and react to.” Rehearsals for this play, Mangan said with a laugh, were “lonely.”
Mangan had portrayed King before, in Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop,” which also takes place in Room 306, but is not a one-man show. What still resonates with MLK. today is that “he was a man,” Mangan said He was plagued by doubts; he suffered from depression, and yet was able to love even those who opposed him.
And King’s bravery persists. Fighting for equality for every man, speaking about poverty, speaking out against the war in Vietnam, took a very brave man, Mangan said. And ultimately, that bravery was one of the reasons he was assassinated. And while many people think of MLK. as a stuffy person, he was very funny: he played practical jokes on other civil rights leaders. “The night before he died, they were having a pillow fight,” he said. “He talks about wanting to be a baseball player, and goes through pitching a ball, referring to himself as Martin Satchel Paige King.”
The play is the same as it was in 1995, but time has passed, and now Katz sees different things in the play. “Elections have come and gone. So things are different,” she said.
“I would like to say that things have changed. And in some ways, of course, they have. And in some ways, unfortunately, they haven’t.”
EXCERPT from “The Mountaintop” speech, delivered April 3, 1968
You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.