Local civil rights leaders persuaded King to join their voices and strategy for a bus boycott in 1955 following the arrest of seamstress Rosa Parks. Activists viewed Parks, who had other encounters with local police in her attempts to challenge segregation law, as the right person to challenge the law again. But this time Parks would have community organization and Martin Luther King, Jr., a 26-year-old brilliant and extraordinary pastor and public orator, behind her. Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white rider and move to the back of a bus which was the law at that time. Park’s arrest touched off a 381-day boycott by African Americans.
King’s closest aide, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, along with supporters and a group of lawyers filed a lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled Montgomery’s law violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The movement almost bankrupted Montgomery. Dr. King was now a national figure. This incredibly well performed play brings to life the chilling reality that with King’s new national fame came intense and relentless scrutiny from the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover. The non-stop scrutiny, harassment, telephone taps, mail openings, and public monitoring followed Dr King up until his death in 1968.
Writers and producers Roy and Donna Parker and Director David Wendell Boykins say this play peels back layers of family secrecy – a side of history few know. Chaz Ingram and Daebreon Poiema are exquisite in their portrayals of Martin and Coretta King. Performances of Tory Smith as John Lewis, Gregor Manns as Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Malika Blessing as Rosa Parks, Trae Ireland as Malcolm X, along with Kevin Scott Allen as J. Edgar Hoover, are so convincing that you get an eerie sense of being transported to the often dangerous times for Black Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s in the southern United States.
On the night we attended Martin: Duty Calls, the audience seemed especially moved by the actor’s poignant performance that brought to light the sometimes heated conflicts between Dr. King and his closest colleagues, including Ralph Abernathy. King would request assistance from the White House for civil rights legislation and sometimes protection for civil rights marchers only to be rebuffed by Hoover’s FBI. Some supporters called King’s decisions to go forward with certain aspects of the civil rights movement crazy and suicidal.
The play even takes you behind the closed-door discussions over the brutal clashes between Selma, Alabama police and African Americans and how King and supporters should respond. As King calculated strategies for peaceful avenues within the established political framework to bring about national changes in segregation and civil liberty laws, a riff deepened between himself and outspoken progressive Black leaders who repudiated his nonviolent methods.
The play is especially emotional as Chaz and Daebreon, as Martin and Coretta, discuss their love, their children, and their call of duty on their last night together. Later King would travel to Memphis, Tennessee to speak out in support African-American sanitation workers. The play reveals that the speech planned was amended on the fly by King, who chose instead to speak from his spirit. Many in the audience seemed to be in awe as Chaz spoke the words of King’s ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ sermon. Chaz is a master of King’s rhythmic speech cadence and powerful soul-stirring tone.
When he takes center stage and delivers King’s words, you’ll surely get chills down your spine. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. King was 39 years old. Again, Martin: Duty Calls is a touring production with seasoned actors. It is among the special performances taking place (2016) with a special observance of ‘Bloody Sunday’ (March 7, 1965) on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Writers Roy and Donna Parker say much is gleaned by observing the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. They say without their dream and courage, America would likely not be living up to its creed of becoming a more perfect union with justice and liberty for all.