Based on a decade of collaboration with Kevin Wilmott, The Coterie Theatre opens its 2018-19 season with a world premiere by the talented filmmaker and writer.
Set in 1944, “Becoming Martin” delves into the relationship between a young Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Benjamin Mays, then president of Morehouse College (at that time the nation’s only black men’s college), which King entered at 15 years of age.
It was Mays who steered King away from the study of medicine or law, which King had assumed to be the most effective channels in dismantling Jim Crow racism, and into the clergy and the sphere of civil disobedience.
Willmott learned of the Morehouse College president’s mentorship and influence over King through his colleague at KU, Randal Jelks, professor of American Studies and African American History. Jelks had written an award-winning book, “Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography” (he’s also writing a children’s book on the same subject), and Willmott was fascinated to learn that Mays had met Gandhi and likely brought him and his philosophy to the attention of King. In “Becoming Martin,” Willmott uses Gandhi’s assassination as a metaphor for King’s assassination.
The project is a perfect match for Willmott’s goals. If there is to be any hope to reduce racism in our society, he says, “you have to have an honest discussion about it.” You have to be “willing to be uncomfortable.”
In “Becoming Martin,” viewers will be introduced to a young man they can relate to. Called “Tweed” by his friends, he likes girls, is no more than an average student, and suffers at the hands of his harsh, demanding father.
The play posits the question: “How does each of us find who we are supposed to be?”
What are our individual rights and responsibilities? It moves from race issues into changing ideas of class, ethnicity, gender and age.
“Becoming Martin” is being produced in community partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters Kansas City, an organization that helps adult mentors forge trusting relationships with youth to help them reach their fullest potential. Willmott has a daughter with the BBBS organization in Lawrence, enhancing the connection.
“Becoming Martin” is the next in The Coterie’s series of “social justice plays,” which have included “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Student Sit-ins of 1960,” “The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock,” “The Freedom Trial of Anthony Burns 1858” and “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” The theater will offer pre-show and in-school workshops to prepare young audiences for the show; in the past three years more than 500 workshops involving more than 10,000 students have been presented.
“Becoming Martin,” deemed appropriate for ages 12 and older, opens the Coterie’s 40th anniversary season and will run Sept. 18 through Oct. 21. It links to many other local activities scheduled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s death, and also coincides with the push to rename a Kansas City street or property for him.
Willmott’s vote is for the airport.