Race Matters in the Many Mistresses of MLK

Lashawna (Tracey A. Leigh) and Anquan (Theo Perkins) share a moment in "The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King," now playing at the Atwater Village Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo: Tom Burruss

Stage Review

Sparking dialogue about race is a tricky dilemma for any playwright.  Andrew Dolan’s “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” succeeds in hitting all the right buttons in regards to this always controversial topic.

As the country searches its racial-conscious soul in the wake of the callous shooting murder of a black Florida teen who fell under the stereotype guise of “looking suspicious,” by an overzealous volunteer Neighborhood Watch captain, Dolan’s brilliantly acted play is not afraid to tackle the race card.

In fact, “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” (now playing at the Atwater Village Theatre in Los Angeles through April 29), is a dynamic, blunt, get-in-your face theatrical production about race relations.

Sure, there have been many stage plays that have gone into the realm of race, but “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” gives an unapologetic, emotionally raw look at the subject.  The title alone is enough to get a discussion started.

Then you have the play itself, which centers on the relationship between a black college student (Tracey A. Leigh) and the white college professor (Philip Casnoff) whom she marries.  Through this sheer dynamic, “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” wastes no time in provoking thought about race relations.

Interracial relationships, while widely accepted, are still a cause for heads to turn and whispers of fodder in today’s society. In some circles in this country, interracial relationships are looked upon as taboo, especially when you have a black woman choosing a white man as her lifelong partner. Of course, with his backdrop, Dolan is sure to strike a nerve with some people. And that’s what this play is all about: stirring the pot.

One happy family: Lashawna (Tracey A. Leigh) speaks to Simon (Philip Casnoff) while Anquan (Theo Perkins) looks like he's ready to get out of town. Photo: Tom Burress

Set in a university town, “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” begins with the black college student Lashawna (played wonderfully by Leigh) cleaning house as her college professor husband Simon (masterfully acted by Casnoff) listens to the tunes of Miles Davis. In a keen and subtle way this scenario plays to the heart of the play in that this older white college professor seem to have an appreciation for black music, black culture, black people and marries a black woman.

That is until Lashawna’s younger brother Anquan comes to live with them. Like his bigger sister, Lashanwna, Anquan is from the other side of tracks than the world that Simon is used to. After seeing other siblings fall into unproductive lifestyles, Lashawna is determined not to let Anquan fall through the cracks and invites him to stay with the couple.

This is when Simon’s long-held mask of urban acceptability begins to shatter.

Played convincingly by Theo Perkins, Anquan invades the married couple’s home like a youthful tornado. A member of the university basketball team, Anquan is quite the opposite of his sister. He is not as polished as his sister. He is a little belligerent and somehow he provokes the worst fears or stereotypes of young African American men that Simon has always held but never openly showed. Naturally, an unavoidable tug-of-war goes on between the two men as Lashawna plays the good cop in the middle of their divided wedge.

Viewed by his peers as a radical professor, Simon’s racial poker face further unravels as he tries to deal with and accept the fact that his daughter from a previous marriage, has hooked up and gotten engaged to a young black man whose parents (Judith Moreland and Carlos Carrasco) also teach in the same sociology department he works in.  With her husband’s racial infirmities coming to light, Lashawna start to take notice of Simon’s frailties.

She becomes torn. As Simon embark on the winding journey of writing a historical fiction novel on the life and infidelities of Martin Luther King Jr., he gets lost in his own self-absorbed world which borders on the distortion of reality when it comes to race. While he accepts his African American wife without parameters, Simon is not so accepting to his family all of a sudden becoming black.

It is a wrestling match that the inner Simon finds difficult to overcome. While he puts up a good front, Simon eventually becomes paralyzed by his deep-rooted outlook on race. And at the end of the day, Lashawna comes to the realization that as a black woman she can no longer bear the weight of Simon’s racial insensitivities.

“The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” gives the audience a dose of shock with its straight forward script and point-blank dialogue.  The openness of the play will have some feeling uncomfortable, even squeamish, talking about the race issue. That’s a good thing. Dolan wanted to create a play that would initiate people to have an honest discussion about race. Superb acting from the cast members and an exceptional script make “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” the right avenue to start the conversation.

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