Review: The Coterie’s premiere of Becoming Martin

Review presented by UMB Private Wealth Management

Left to Right: Walter Coppage (as Dr. Benjamin E. Mays), Aaron Ellis (as Martin Luther King, Jr.), George L. Forbes (as Prof. George D. Kelsey), and Sherri Roulette Mosley (as Sadie Mays). Photo by J. Robert Schraeder and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.

Break out the candles, party hats, and your best rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday to Ya’. They say the most youthful life is the one spent in service to the world. That’s why the Coterie Theatre makes the Big 4-0 look goooood.

Kansas City’s theater known for serving all generations commemorates their 40th anniversary season with the world-premiere of Kevin Willmott’s (BlacKkKlansman) ode to self-discovery Becoming Martin, playing now through October 21.

In line with the Coterie’s commitment to education and fostering the imagination of young people, Becoming Martin spans the 1944-1948 Morehouse undergraduate experience of teenage Martin Luther King, Jr. (Aaron Ellis) as he hunts down his purpose with the guidance of Morehouse president, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays (Walter Coppage).

Left to Right: Aaron Ellis (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Walter Coppage (as Dr. Benjamin E. Mays). Photo by J. Robert Schraeder and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.

Martin Luther King, Sr. (Granvile T. O’Neal) knows his son is intellectually gifted but fears he may fall from the path of godly service. He asks Mays and his wife Sadie (Sherri Roulette-Mosley) to take a special interest in Junior while he spends his last teenage years becoming a “Morehouse Man”.

The fire of intellectual brilliance shared between Mays and King Jr. spins their relationship into a collaborative trust as they challenge each other to cultivate faith, even in a world where blackness is at the mercy of white violence.

It takes a special theater to stage productions about society’s most difficult trials in such a way that young minds are compelled to evaluate and reason. The Coterie Theatre celebrates decades of successfully sharing earnest stories with incredible impact and Martin is no different.

Willmott is known for his fearless approach to the distressing state of race in America and his personal demonstration of peaceful protest. (Willmott recently tackled the Kansas conceal and carry laws on-campus by donning a bullet-proof vest every day before his classes as a professor of screenwriting at KU). Thoughtfulness about the role of the church in confronting social ills also invigorates the humanizing account of King pre-legend.

Books are the focal point on the beige set. They’re the perfect backdrop to stimulating conversation about everything from fulfilling one’s potential to boy Martin’s brand of girl-chasing. George L. Forbes as Professor George D. Kelsey is a sound representation of the segregation, not only of black and white, but of “men of letters” and common folk, a divide that is as significant to the plot as racial separation.

Left to Right: Walter Coppage (as Dr. Benjamin E. Mays) and Aaron Ellis (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) Photo by J. Robert Schraeder and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.

If there was a King of Kansas City theater, Walter Coppage would be it. There is a deep, yet subtle emotion to his delivery. The love Mays feels for Martin, who serves as sort of a surrogate son, is just there underneath the surface—enough to stimulate both that emotional and intellectual response intended by Willmott, but not so on the nose that it cheapens the relationship. This character reminds us that potential is boundless. It just needs the right hands to mold it.

Though Ellis doesn’t reach that same emotional dexterity, it’s his performance that helps the piece toe the tight-rope between delivering a sermon and sermonizing. Willmott has a lot to say about a lot of ideas: standards of maturity, the difference between a vengeful and loving God, why whiteness as the center of social consciousness hasn’t changed, economic inclusion, how to utilize faith and the Christian Bible as the solution to common follies. Oh—and Gandhi. Gandhi and his foreshadowing presence in Martin’s formative years. Without Martin’s boyish charm, the pondering of these ideas could have easily sounded like droning on.

The teenagers in the audience may not have completely understood all the talk of fundamentalism, but they certainly perked up to the energetic rebelling of a young Martin standing up to an overbearing father singularly focused on Martin inheriting the cloth.

Most universal of its themes is mentorship and it is central to Becoming Martin. This is King before the martyr, even before the man. This is just a kid trying to find his way. Young audiences are invited into the core wisdom of success: find a mentor.

Left to Right: Granvile O’Neal (as Martin Luther King, Sr.), Sherri Roulette Mosley (as Sadie Mays), Walter Coppage (as Dr. Benjamin E. Mays), and Aaron Ellis (as Martin Luther King, Jr.). Photo by J. Robert Schraeder and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.

Education as liberation can be a double-edged dagger. It offers endless freedom to either
find or to lose our respective selves. Mentors serve as sounding boards, help focus ideas, refine messy thoughts. Without Mays, where would Martin Luther King, Jr. be? Where would we be?

Like King, the Coterie is devoted to making the world better. With this production, her self-esteem building classes, in-school inclusion workshops, discipline in writing for teens, and STI prevention education, the Coterie shepherds in the next season and era of changing the lives of young people and of celebrating diversity through art.

This 40th anniversary season features two plays and four musicals like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, shows expected to be filled with color and wonder. The Coterie kicks off this year doing what she does best: the good works of kindling the imaginations of us all.

Left to Right: George L. Forbes (as Prof. George D. Kelsey) and Sherri Roulette Mosley (as Sadie Mays). Photo by J. Robert Schraeder and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.

Becoming Martin at the Coterie Theatre
Through October 21

Directed by
Chip Miller

Walter Coppage, Aaron Ellis, Grandvile T. O’Neal, Sherri Roulette-Mosley and George L. Forbes

Producing Artistic Director
Jeff Church

Executive Director
Joette Pelster