Compelling theater is transformative. It changes your perspective. Luna Stage’s production of The Man in Room 306, is simple — just Jamil A.C. Mangan playing the Civil Rights icon in a room at the Lorraine motel in Memphis before he’s assassinated — but its impact is seismic.
I went into the show seeing Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a historical titan and inspiring orator, capable of moving men and women to act on their higher aspirations. I left the show appreciating Dr. King as a complex man, hounded by uncertainty, but even more inspiring because he rose above that fear and doubt in his pursuit of what he believed in.
Playwright Craig Alan Edwards takes on a formidable task: helping the audience understand the human side of King. While the events surrounding the play are factual, Edwards’ interpretation of this interaction is fictional.
Edwards paints a picture of King by having him take you into his confidence. You feel like you’re in room 306 with him. Jamil A.C. Mangan portrays a King that is larger than life, a gregarious storyteller spinning yarns about past loves, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy and his father.
Mangan and director Jerome Preston Bates blend King’s raconteur abilities with a menacing sense of foreboding and anxiety. King scrapes the furniture or pulls apart items in search of microphones planted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents. At other times he’s startled by the claps of thunder outside his window.
The play opens with Dr. King sleeping. Images of the Memphis riots that preceded Dr. King’s visit to the city are projected onto the wall just behind his bed.
King jumps out of bed, startled. He tells us about a dream, being at a restaurant where black and white people are served together. He looks down at his plate and sees a pigeon with human eyes. The waiter stabs the pigeon and drinks its blood. The pigeon metaphor is repeated throughout the show. King tells us a story about discussing an earlier dream involving pigeons with his grandmother, who tells him seeing the birds in dreams represents transformation.
King shares another haunting dream, where he sees the four girls killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Montgomery, Alabama.
Mangan plays King with grace and nuance. He’s authentic and effectively conveys the range of emotions Dr. King goes through during the play.
The anxiety King feels is rooted in reality. This is a tough time for his Civil Rights movement. It’s splintering into factions, one being Dr. King’s non-violent group, the other a more militant group led by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, leaders of the Black Panthers.
King seeks to broaden his social justice message by including economically disadvantaged people of all races in the U.S. by orchestrating a Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. set to start in June 1968.
We see King’s frustration and exhaustion during the play through phone conversations about the Poor People’s March.
“The very soul of the nonviolence movement is on trial…Stop feeding me failure, I’m choking on it.” he tells the caller.
As the play progresses, a fuller picture of King is revealed. He loves baseball and practical jokes and has a complicated relationship with his father. He spent much of his life trying to step out of his father’s shadow. King tells us a story of a party celebrating his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize where his father seems to spin the attention away from his son and toward himself.
During the play King starts to write his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech which he gave at Mason Temple in Memphis, the day before he was assassinated. Writers will identify with how King is quickly distracted from writing and moves to another task. Later in the play Mangan delivers that speech.
Edwards and Mangan show us a man driven by a strong sense of social justice and determined to change not only the law of the land, but how people view African Americans.
“You can’t legislate love and God’s will,” King says during the play.
Admirers of Dr. King, students of history and anyone interested in what drives great men will find The Man in Room 306 a fascinating character study into the psyche of one of the most influential figures of the past 100 years.
The Man in Room 306, Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, now through May 13. Tickets at Lunastage.org