In the tightly-packed Coterie Theatre, an engaged audience filled with children and adults of all races were afforded a unique opportunity in witnessing a young Martin Luther King Jr. question his role in society in the play, “Becoming Martin.”
The play, directed by Chip Miller and written by University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott, kicked off the 40th anniversary season of the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. The play will run until Oct. 21.
Kevin Willmott, professor of film and media studies, collaborated with film director Spike Lee to create the award-winning film "BlacKkKlansman." Willmott says the film is intended to highlight the current resurgence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
Set in the 1940s, “Becoming Martin” follows King’s formative years as he attends Morehouse College, which remains the nation’s most prestigious institution for black men. It’s during that time that King, played by Aaron Ellis, begins to explore various concepts, including his relationship with God, his purpose in life and his views on segregation.
The play opens with a conversation between Martin Luther King Sr. (played by Granville T. O’Neal) and Dr. Benjamin Mays (played by Walter Coppage), then-president of Morehouse College. King was only 15 when he was admitted to Morehouse. Martin Luther King Sr., like most parents who are nervous about their kids going away to college, is worried about how his son will adjust to college life, so he pleads with Mays to offer guidance to his son. Although Mays is initially hesitant, he decides to become his mentor.
It’s during the next scene that the audience is introduced to a different Martin Luther King Jr. — one who isn’t so sure of himself or the world around him. He questions the Bible. He questions God. He attempts suicide at the thought of losing his grandmother, who died of a heart attack. He doesn’t want to follow in his family’s tradition of becoming a minister.
The only thing he is sure about is his feelings about white people. Discouraged by the prevalent lynchings and his other first-hand experiences with racism in the South, King becomes more radical in his activism, which is different from traditional media portrayals of him. He even ponders taking revenge on white people.
However, with the help of Dr. Mays, King Jr. is able to discover his life’s purpose. It’s Mays who introduces King to Gandhi’s autobiography and the concept of nonviolent resistance. Mays also tells a discouraged King that it’s possible to fight segregation with his faith. More importantly, Mays teaches King that he can be both radical and nonviolent with his activism.
Although the play has a small cast, it’s supported by strong acting and solid, thought-provoking writing. Walter Coppage really shines in his role as Dr. Mays. He does a great job of portraying Mays as the accepting mentor and voice of reason that was influential in King’s life.
Aaron Ellis brings a discouraged, yet determined Martin Luther King to life and introduces the audience to a younger version of the leader who’s against conforming to the status quo. The writing of the play really illuminates that aspect of King. King’s conversations are guided in a way that makes audiences think about current issues of the world and how King could have played a role in them if he were still alive.
King’s path toward that discovery is also helped by May’s wife, Sadie (Sherri Roulette-Mosley) who listens to King’s ideas and supports his activism. King is also supported by his religious studies teacher, George Kelsey (played by George Forbes), who brags about King’s success in his course. And it’s at the end of the play, just before King graduates from Morehouse, that King chooses what he wants to do with his life.
The play conveys the importance of brotherhood, mentorship and social justice. More importantly, considering the recent heightened attention of student activism, the play serves as an appropriate reminder of the power of youth.
Diana Bell, a Kansas City, Missouri native, who attended the show, said she liked how the play revealed a lot of the teenage characteristics of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I was very impressed with the play, and to have a kid that young who was rebellious,” said Bell. “It just didn’t seem like the Martin Luther King that we hear about in the news or how they report on him.”
Tickets for “Becoming Martin” can be purchased here.