Our first African-American president sits in the White House. The possibility of universal health care is tantalizingly close. The battle over marriage rights has become the latest crucible for our democracy. There has never been a better time for The Man in Room 306—a chance to revisit the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., America's most iconic symbol of racial equality, civil rights and social justice.
In the hands of playwright/actor Craig Alan Edwards, King is no mere symbol, no icon or idol. As he says himself, "I AM A MAN. I am not a martyr, I am not the Messiah. Sometimes when people talk about me in those terms it scares me because I don't recognize the person they're talking about." Edwards has set himself the potentially risky task of honoring King by presenting him as a full and flawed human being. The result is explosive—theatrically, emotionally, and morally.
The Man in Room 306 finds King in a moment of great inner struggle—his own Gethsemane, named for the garden where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion. According to the book of Luke, Jesus' anguish there was so deep that "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground." King's Gethsemane is room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the stormy evening of April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. There he sweats metaphorical blood in a life and death struggle with himself—his fears, doubts, and guilt. Though he doesn't know he is to die the next day, King is haunted by death threats, ominous dreams, and Malcolm X's prophecy: "They'll never let us grow old, Martin. I'm sure we'll never grow old."
In Edward's skilled hands, King's greatness is amplified by his full-blooded humanity. He is a lover of baseball, practical jokes, fatty foods and whiskey. He is at times coarse, vain, childish, short-tempered and paranoid. He procrastinates. He admits to lust and adultery. He also (thank God) has a sense of humor about himself. On the incident that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott he wryly notes, "Rosa Parks - she just wouldn't get up; and I haven't sat down since."
Nowhere is King's humanity more on display than in his relationship with his father, "Daddy King." Like most sons, young Martin wished simultaneously to escape his father's shadow and win his approval. Daddy King is characterized as passionate and pompous, fond of putting his celebrated son in his place: "No matter how famous you may think you are, you bes' remember who changed your stinking diapers." (On the night I saw the show a young girl in the audience let out an audible "Ewww.") The most touching moment in the play for me is when Daddy King raises a spontaneous toast to his son as he is about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The younger King is moved to tears. What son cannot relate?
His wife Coretta remains a distant, ambivalent figure. The marriage is a partnership, with mutual respect and affection, but little passion. As to his adultery, which she discovered through an FBI-produced surveillance tape, he admits, "My wife says she understands…I hope she can forgive…I hope they can ALL forgive."
Overall the man who emerges is the great man we honor today: principled, empathetic and humble. The mode is sometimes shockingly confessional ("Large sections of my books were ghost written"), but also compassionate and eerily prescient: "We live in a sick, confused, neurotic nation…What we need in America is an Economic Bill of Rights, to eliminate poverty—Black and White—and guarantee every citizen the dignity of meaningful work and the security of health care." These honest, piercing words could be spoken today.
Edwards inhabits King with a heartfelt passion that can only come from deep personal commitment. I can imagine him wanting to augment his successful acting career (his bio includes all the Law & Order shows and a play with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis) with something truly his own. Not unlike King himself, who left preaching for activism out of a need to have a greater impact on the world. The Man in Room 306 reminds us how powerful we can be when we are willing to go beyond our comfort zones.
Much credit is due to the director and designers of this handsome production. One is struck immediately upon entering the theater by a set that is beautiful and impeccably faithful to the period. Special props (pun intended) to Jessica Parks, who is responsible for the myriad authentic period details: the copy of TV Guide on the vintage television; the pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes; the wallet with the initials M.L.K. embossed on it in gold. The period songs, ads and news broadcasts on the radio further serve to evoke an America in the process of losing its innocence. Change is possible, but sometimes at a terrible price.
I have my doubts about theater as a means of social change. But for anyone needing to be re-inspired by the values on which this county was built, I whole-heartedly recommend this show. Dr. King is an enduring hero, a true leader who understood the political process but stood outside of it. It's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as I write this. In the words of the play itself: "Lord, I know you don't judge me by the mistakes I've made but by the total bent of my life…Lord, I want to hear you say I love you and bless you and I take you in because you tried. Martin Luther King, you tried." Amen.
(The Man In Room 306 runs through Sunday, February 14. The performance schedule is Tuesday though Wednesday at 7:15pm, Thursday through Friday at 8:15pm, Saturday at 2:15pm and 8:15pm; and Sunday at 3:15pm and 7:15pm. Tickets are $35 and are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.ticketcentral.com. For more information visit www.59E59.org.)