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Theater Review: "The Many Mistresses Of Martin Luther King" By Ensemble Studio Theatre

Sara Itkis |
March 24, 2012 | 6:24 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

“The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King”—a gripping title, which promises stimulating debate and brings fundamental moral principles into question. It holds much potential for a provocative and controversial play. Sadly, “Many Mistresses” fulfills none of it. Like its title, the play calls attention to itself with its supposedly groundbreaking approach to racial attitudes in America; beneath the surface, however, there is little depth to its content. As a far greater playwright would put it, “Many Mistresses” is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

To start with, “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” is not about Martin Luther King or his mistresses at all, but rather about a white college professor, Simon, who is married to a young black undergraduate student, Lashawna. It also follows another black couple, Janine and Augustus, who are on the faculty of the same university, and Lashawna’s younger brother, Anquan, who is struggling to be the first man in his family to graduate from college. Tracey A Leigh, playing Lashawna, is convincing as the responsible “Mommy” of the family and Theo Perkins, portraying her brother Anquan, is wonderful as a mostly comic character, with moments of revealing sincerity and intelligence. Judith Moreland, playing Janine, is the best, in my opinion, with her nonchalant humor and the playful way in which she addresses the audience as a group of lazy college students in lecture. Unfortunately, Philip Casnoff, as Simon, is unsatisfying. This could be due to a weak script,or perhaps his acting, but either way, Simon felt unconvincing as a character. Often, the “is he truly an asshole, or does he secretly have a heart of gold?” question can make a character intriguing and fascinating, but this is not the case for Simon. There is never enough emotional stake in him for the “asshole” question to matter. Despite the handful of moments in which Casnoff shines with his wordy defiance, there are too many moments in which his character feels forced.

There is also the issue of the script itself: written by Andrew Dolan, the play has an interesting approach to narrative design which ultimately does more harm than good. While most of the action takes place in a cocktail party with all five characters, there are flashbacks and flashforwards throughout. These are interspersed with monologues from each character addressing a student body, an audience at a book reading, or, in one case, an administrative board. At first, this non-linear approach adds dimension and excitement to a plot that has begun to feel quite slow, but it becomes increasingly convoluted and hard to follow. As far as the content itself goes, the play aims to tackle American attitudes towards race in today’s society. It certainly begins to achieve that purpose. Simon attempts to justify claims that would often be considered racist, and certainly are perceived as such by the other characters in the play. However, his agenda is not to offend anyone for the hell of it, but to uncover truth in its most raw form. Many of the subjects he brings up shock and provoke, such as his attack on Martin Luther King for his repeated unfaithfulness to his wife. However, while Simon speaks of a book he has written, of a tenure application he submitted, and of the many opinions he holds, the audience only gets to hear a small fraction of it all. In the end, we are still unclear as to what points Simon is really trying to make. As a whole, that is what this production lacks most: a point. It certainly brings up a controversial subject, and raises many fascinating questions, and even has a moment of exciting drama towards the end; but it does not take any clear positions on the subject, and it does not begin to answer these questions, or satisfactorily justify the action that occurs. There were various interesting ideas scattered throughout the play, but they failed to cohere in any strong manner. Instead, they just called attention to themselves, promising deeper examination but ultimately never achieving it. 

Simon speaks of his own book, that goes by the same title as the play. He claims the title’s purpose is to stimulate debate and provoke argument. However, he pleads with his audience to reserve judgement until they have actually read the book instead of immediately taking offense. “Don’t judge,” he repeats. We, as an audience, have little idea of what the contents of the book hold. We have only gotten a vague impression of the positions he takes on the issues. How, then, can we reserve judgement when we still don’t know his point even at the end of the play? In the end, the title remains only a title, with no substantial material to justify, support, explain or even contradict it.

You can reach reporter Sara Itkis here.



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