The Man in Room 306
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 19, 2010
The Man in Room 306 is Martin Luther King, Jr.; the reference is to the room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where Dr. King stayed the night before he was assassinated. Actor/playwright Craig Alan Edwards portrays Dr. King in this one-man play, which is making a belated New York debut under the direction of Cheryl Katz, a decade and a half after it was first presented in New Jersey.
What I liked about The Man in Room 306 is how it reminds us of the important courageous stances that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers took in the 1950s and '60s: not only the fight for equality and civil rights for African Americans, but also principled opposition to a purposeless war that was sapping the resources and integrity of the nation and a challenge to end poverty in the richest country in the world. There is authentic resonance in all of this, nearly 42 years after King was shot; to hear, for example, about the shameful conditions of a Deep South schoolhouse that King visited where all that the children were given for lunch was five crackers and a quarter of an apple each is to be confronted with a shocking reality that persists to this day. Why does America not seem to have the resolve it had when leaders like King held sway?
Edwards looks a bit like King and, in the passages where he speechifies or sermonizes, he sounds a lot like him as well. He especially has the cadences of that famous voice down well. He has the capacity to stir us nearly as much as the original man did.
What disappointed me about this play, though, is that when I left I really didn't know anything more about King than when I arrived. The key points of the story are familiar to just about anybody living in the USA today: King's role in the Civil Rights movement, the FBI's constant surveillance and undermining of his work, the imminent murder foreshadowed so keenly in his final speech that night in Memphis:
He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
(These, inevitably, are nearly the final words of the play.) Edwards spends a lot of time dealing with King the Man, and so we hear about his womanizing, his smoking, his love for his grandmother and the tensions in his relationship with his father. But most of this, too, is common knowledge in 2010. The insightful perspective that I gained about King from Tracey Scott Wilson's fictionalized drama The Good Negro, for example, is lacking here. Edwards pays tribute, but doesn't provide much of a point of view about his subject beyond the received wisdom.
Nevertheless, there's much that's valuable here, and it does kind of take the breath away to realize that in 2010, with an African American president of the United States, we are as far away in time from 1968 as that year was from the institutionalized racism of the 1920s. Things really have changed for the better, thanks to Dr. King and others who worked with him and followed him, and that's always worth remembering.