The Luna Stage, a Jersey theater gem, chose to revive its 1995 world premiere drama, The Man in Room 306, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Starring Jamil A.C. Mangan as Dr. King, this 90 minute production portrays Dr. King in the last hours of his life as he struggles to write a speech for the Poor People's March in Washington, which was to have taken place a week hence. Mangan's booming voice is Shakespearean in its delivery as Dr. King reminisces about the tribulations in his past, particularly his fears about his father, “Daddy Reverend King,” and his fears about the future. The play, written by Craig Alan Edwards, is one of the best composed, most riveting dramas that has appeared on a contemporary stage.
Before entering the theater, guests were invited into an information room that included photos of Dr. King during his lifetime. People and events that King mentions during the drama are defined in the room, which even included an area for a photo opportunity where the guest could hold up a sign and be incorporated into a freedom march. The room provided opportunities for guests to leave messages about where they were when they heard the news about the assassination of Dr. King and what that moment represented in their lives. Providing this information for the public helped to create the setting and tone for the play while people waited to embark on the dramatic journey.
Upon entering the theater the audience heard an actual radio broadcast taken from a Memphis, Tennessee radio station which provided background music and news items to set the mood of the era for the theater goers. President Lyndon Johnson had declared the week before that he would not seek a second term as President of the United States, and Marvin Gaye, Tammy Terrell, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations brought back the Motown sound that was so popular in 1968. The play, directed brilliantly by Jerome Preston Bates, used several broadcast bites throughout, to convey the news highlights of April 1968.
The play opens with Dr. King curled up on the bed in Room 306. The set reproduced the actual room in which King stayed during his time in Memphis. A shabby, cheap looking room, it is clean and functional, but a reminder that in those days blacks were not welcome in ritzier places, nor could freedom fighters afford the luxuries of lavish hotel suites. King awakens from a nightmare, clasping his hands over his heart, and reacting to the thunder and lightening that is going on outside his window.
The narrative, which Dr. King delivers directly to the audience, flows from one thought to another, as the Civil Rights advocate does what most of us do when we have an important speech to pen or essay to compose. He procrastinates by taking the audience through events and dreams of his own life, plays a round or two of solitaire, and talks on the phone. He exposes the pain he feels over the shooting of Larry Paine, a sixteen year old boy who had marched with Dr. King only a week before. Dr. King takes moral responsibility for the young man's death and chastises himself for allowing it to happen. He struggles with doubts about his success as a leader and exposes his weaknesses as a human being.
The script allows the audience an opportunity to see the synthesis of the creative process that the brilliant orator, Dr. King, may very well have experienced each time he wrote one of his often quoted and much remembered speeches. How does one top the words that have come before? How does one continue to motivate people across the nation without becoming redundant and having the message ignored?
There are moments of humor and humanity spread throughout the play. Dr. King lets the audience in on the fact, that like many children, he fantasized about becoming a major league athlete. His most treasured possession is a baseball that his grandmother, whom he affectionately called Mama, had given to him. The ball, now signed by Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, remains in a prominent place onstage throughout the production, a symbol of childhood dreams.
Dr. King shares that he wanted to be a lawyer, but came from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers, and that is what Daddy King had chosen for him to pursue as a career. Daddy King had chosen a bride for “M.L.” as his family and friends called him, “a girl from a fine Atlanta family,” but Dr. King adamantly wanted to select his own bride. He was introduced to his wife, Coretta, through a mutual friend and impressed by her beauty and intellect, proposed to her. Although being on the road for years at a time, and also having dallied with other women during his long, lonely absences from home, he makes his devotion to his wife clear throughout the play.
A large gold watch glitters from Dr. King's wrist, reflecting the light as he speaks. Wearing his old black suit, which he tells us that Coretta warns will one day fall off his body when a single thread comes loose, the timepiece seems an anomaly in King’s fashion style. The watch, however, is there for a reason, a symbol of the fact that Dr. King's time on earth is running out.
The play's climax puts together the pieces that Dr. King has shared during the performance in a thrilling manner. It is a tribute to the creative process of a man who continues to change the way people think more than fifty years after he is gone from this earth. The Man in Room 306 honors the man that those who care about social justice will always see as a beacon of truth and peace.
Just a word about the Luna State, located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ. Nestled into a residential area in the town, the Luna Stage has been in business since 1993. Supported by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, which supports a thriving statewide professional theater community, the Luna Stage provides an opportunity for New Jersey residents to see top quality productions for a quarter of Broadway prices. For further information about upcoming productions or season subscriptions, contact 973-395-5551 or lunastage.org. The list of previous productions that the Luna Stage has done is impressive and of top quality, a wonderful value for fine theater experiences.