Last night a sold-out crowd at Dallas City Performance Hall saw a new play about Martin Luther King, Jr.
They didn’t see the man himself portrayed onstage. In the drama, The 67th Book Of The Bible, King is onstage only in the famous letter he wrote from Birmingham Jail in 1963 – or, rather, not ‘wrote’ so much as scrawled hastily on bits of toilet paper, grocery bags and newspapers. The reverend’s words — smuggled out from jail — must be quickly yet carefully deciphered by King’s chief of staff Wyatt Tee Walker and Walker’s young assistant Willie Pearl Mackey. Flattening the scraps, piecing them together and poring over faded “chicken scratches” is how the civil rights activists interact with their leader in the play.
That mechanism – casting King not as an icon but as a sum of the sweaty, urgent, barely legible pieces of what would become his landmark defense of the civil rights movement – is a credit to Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton. In a panel discussion after the play, director Derrick Sanders wrapped an arm of encouragement around the young writer.
King is often portrayed as a black Jesus, a noble icon, and the activists behind him are often revered as pious heroes. Norton shows the Southern Christian Leadership Conference workers and their dangerous, messy workaday lives in Birmingham, Alabama, without ducking the conflict within the ranks.
“I’ve raced up and down the same back roads with you and Dr. King with the Ku Klux Klan fast on our tail!” Mackey, portrayed by Kenneisha Thompson, yells after trying to resign her post, fed up with Walker’s dismissive tirades.
“I’ve been locked up in jail – same as you! And for all I’ve done, you still call me child and talk to me like I’m a child and treat me like I’m less than!”
“Less than what?”
“Less than YOU!”
Looking at activism through the lens of conviction rather than power is a theme in the play — as it was in the panel discussion. The real-life Willie Pearl Mackey King was in the audience for the play’s debut. Larry Allums, director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities And Culture which commissioned the play, headed up the panel and asked her about her bosses.
“You were with incredibly great people,” he said. “Did it strike you at the time that you were?”
“Absolutely not,” Mackey King quipped. “I had a job, I was glad to have a job. And I was trying my best to keep it by trying to please Dr. Walker. I’m a country girl. I’m not used to being around a lot of important people, okay. So no, that was irrelevant to me.”
Time spent with the SCLC workers informed Norton’s vision for his drama. There’s one key moment he confessed to imagining, though. It’s in the last few lines of the play, when the exhausted Rev. Walker – played by Vontress Mitchell – stops deciphering the passage he’s working on.
“I dreamt that King didn’t make it out,” he confides to his assistant. “I dreamt that I was the one who had to call Coretta. I saw cities on fire, our people were angry.”
“And as their anger grew the fire spread, and spread. They hunted our children down. I saw our sons murdered in the streets. I called out to King, but he was gone. And no one remembered his name.”
Of course, King was released from jail, and spoke feverishly days afterward. But he did eventually die. (In fact, Walker arranged his funeral.) And there were riots. And black lives, black sons, are still being lost in the battle for civil rights.
Allums prodded Norton about his “extreme” ideas about what King might be up to today, if he were still alive. In a column for the Dallas Morning News, Norton wrote that King would speak out for activists fighting against police brutality and advocate for LGBT issues – and questioned whether Reagan would have made it to the White House, had King’s life been spared.
“When we look at what’s happening now in Ferguson and New York and with so many of the young people – particularly the young activists fighting back and standing their ground in a very different kind of way – I feel that if [King] were alive today, he would remind many of my generation that there was once a time he was considered a young troublemaker as well,” Norton said.
Norton is part of KERA’s State of The Arts Panel on creative process and the cultural landscape at the Dallas Museum of Art on Thursday. Find out how to attend.