As Black History month comes to a close, Broadway Black reflects on the great man that is the late Dr. Martin Luther King. He contributed so much and gave his life for a dream. The theater has and is a place that provides a political voice for writers, a community for creative artists, and a remarkable presence for the audience that brings people together.
Dr. King did that for us in the 60′s. With Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, these two worlds collide—the legacy that is Dr. King is brought to life in her Obie Award-winning play. After its controversial run on Broadway in the fall of 2011, Mountaintop has taken Regional Theaters by storm. It seems as though everyone is doing a production of it! Dr. King now reigns as the King of theater, appearing to audiences across the country, urging them to pick up the baton. The actors chosen to portray this iconic figure certainly have big shoes to fill.
Broadway Black had the chance to catch up with two actors who, through the community of theater, have been friends for years and now find themselves on opposite coasts, both cast as Dr. King.
Interview with Jamil Mangan and Bowman Wright
Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Alley Theatre’s The Mountaintop Photo by Jann Whaley
Bowman Wright starred as Martin Luther King in the Alley Theater (Houston, Texas) production from (January 11-February 3), and is part of a co-production with Arena Stage opening April 4th in Washington DC.
Jamil Mangan has been cast in the Theater Works-Hartford production, March 29th- May 5th.
Franceli Chapman: The timing of this is pretty awesome! Two friends in the same play at the same time. How exciting? You both have great bios, but who are you? Who is Bowman Wright? Who is Jamil Mangan? How did you get into acting?
Bowman: I grew up in North Jersey and started acting in High School.
I kept at it all through college, up to my master’s degree.
Jamil: I was born in Jersey and raised in Philadelphia. I started modeling when I was seven and went to a special school for kids in the arts. Keisha Knight Pulliam and I actually went to Kindergarten together! I went on to Newark Arts High School and joined the debate team.
Franceli Chapman: Is that how you guys met?
Bowman: We met in high school but attended different schools. Our theater competitions bought us together.
Jamil: We competed against each other often. One week he would win, and the next week I’d win. It was always friendly competition.
Bowman: Jamil is like a brother.
Jamil: We’re really close. We went to college together and now as professionals, although we’ve gone off to have our own careers, it’s good to have someone who really knows you and supports you and always tells you the truth.
Franceli Chapman: It is wonderful to hear that. That’s rare in this business because each actor has a different journey. What’s yours?
Bowman: It’s funny; I joined the Drama Team in high school, led by Ms. Basketville. She’d make the actors read—not just the actual material, but historical facts on the people in the plays. We’d read random books. It was then that I had the epiphany that there is something that can be done through theater that almost couldn’t be done any other way. You can learn from something by watching it rather than preaching it. You can learn something so big. It was crazy reading the history; it made you think about where you came from, all you’ve dealt with, and the different things that make you who you are. Acting is so amazing because the writing is still about people and big ideas. Film and TV aren’t about that anymore. Theater still tells stories about human beings. You can experience real humans beings and people can walk away inspired and touched. That means more to me than a “Bravo.”
Franceli Chapman: It’s really amazing that this play is being done in so many cities, especially in the south. Bowman, you’re performing in Texas, and Jamil, you’re in Connecticut, and both states still experience racial tension. How did audiences receive the show at the Alley Theater?
Bowman: Robert O’Hara is a great director. It’s interesting to see how this play touches people. It touches people in very odd ways. We’ve received standing ovations every night. We go up again at Arena Stage on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4th.
Jamil: I’m excited to see how Connecticut audiences will respond. I remember seeing the play on Broadway. It was great but I was so consumed in watching the stars perform that I kind of missed the message. I became really engrossed in the play once I read it.
Bowman: I believe that MLK, the man in this play is more powerful than the icon. Every person who sees this play needs to remember that you don’t have to be perfect to do great things. Lord knows that you’re not going to be perfect, but the goal is really to try and stay on the right path. You’ll slip and fall, but you always have to get back up.
Franceli Chapman: The baton has been passed on to you to play Dr. King; how do you feel?
Jamil: To approach Dr. King from this perspective is an honor. Mountaintop is one of those plays you have to see more than once. Katori packs so much in this play. Reading the script really made me understand his legacy from another perspective, and the controversy behind this play is both fascinating and imperative. I can see the lack of leaders we have [in today’s society]. Our leaders, they stop at a certain generation. They feel like they can’t live up to past leaders. They feel they can’t live up to what Dr. King did, but they’re human, you see how much they are like us and you’re inspired to lead, too. That’s what Katori has done with this character.
Bowman: It means a lot to play Dr. King! When I first got this role, it was a little daunting. I definitely felt like I would be climbing a mountaintop to do this role.
Jamil: I remember when he called me about Mountaintop.
Franceli Chapman: Whom did you call when you got the role, Jamil?
Jamil: I called my mom first and then Bowman. He told me to get in shape. We don’t talk often, but when we do, we talk for hours. He gave me a lot of advice.
Bowman: Doing this show is like running a marathon. There is a great line at the end of play that says, “The baton may have been dropped, but anyone can pick it up.” Seeing Dr. King smoke, drink, curse, and flirt with a woman makes us look at ourselves because half of us have done these things. Dr. King really makes me think about my life differently. Doing this role made me dig deeper and in my research, I found out things [about myself] that I didn’t know…
Jamil: In my research, out found out a fascinating fact. In 1999, the King family won a civil suit against the government for their involvement in his assassination. It was so shocking to read.
Bowman: Playing this role makes me a better Christian, believe it or not, and to think about how he is, it makes me want to go out and do more for my community. It makes me want to do God’s Will. He was a man who gave up everything. I hope more people decide to learn about MLK and African American history as a whole, not just what they teach in the school. What is truly important is that we take care of each other.
Franceli Chapman: This has been great! We are a part of one of the most amazing communities, the theater community. Listening to both of you has been a pleasure.
Jamil: Thank you; you must come see us!
Bowman: Yes. Thank you. Let me know if you can come down to DC and I’ll get you in for the Arena performance. And I must say one thing about my brother Jamil, he’s very modest, but being a part of Theater Works is a big deal and I’m very proud of him. You have to go and see him, as well.