Tavis Smiley Brings MLK to the stage
Tavis Smiley (left) accompanied by Marcus Roberts (right). Photo credit: Earl E. Gibson; The Smiley Group

With the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination approaching, renowned journalist and bestselling author Tavis Smiley will be bringing his acclaimed book, “Death of a King”, to theaters across the country for an innovative multimedia stage production.

 

Billed as “Death of a King: A Live Theatrical Experience”, the production will have Smiley reading passages from the book in front of three large high definition screens displaying powerful and never before seen photos and videos of Dr. King painting a picture of the man that many have never seen before. Smiley will be accompanied by jazz piano legend, Marcus Roberts, who has written 14 original compositions specifically for this project. Tony Award-winning Broadway and film director Kenny Leon (A Raisin In The Sun, The Mountaintop, August Wilson’s Fences) is also serving as the show’s creative consultant.

 

Smiley’s biography, along with the production, chronicles the not-so-well-known last 12 months of Dr. King’s life when he was disillusioned with the heart and soul of America in the midst of the Vietnam war. This stance coupled with his dedication to nonviolence, the polar opposite view of activists like Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, saw King steadily losing popularity amongst the American public. It’s a truly startling and unexpected revelation when looking back on one of our country's most cherished figures.

 

“When you look at it in retrospect, it’s not so much King was alone, he was early,” said Smiley “now, universally everybody accepts that the Vietnam war was the worst mistake our country ever made.” This is one of the main goals that Smiley wants to accomplish with this production, that you will see Dr. King’s bravery and conviction in a time where he was at odds with the world.  

 

The end result will paint a powerful portrayal of the man while motivating those who want to see a change in the world.“You’re going to leave the theatre levitating realizing that there is still work to be done and we are the ones to do it,” says Smiley, “if we want to honor King’s life, we have to live his legacy.” 

 

Being an important year in the remembrance of Dr. King, Smiley also believes that the show will resonate in a powerful way given the current state of our nation and will act as a necessary cautionary tale to a society that ignores its truth tellers.

“America is lost. We just need to be honest about that,” says Smiley with a heavy heart, “the only thing worse than being lost is being lost and heading in the wrong direction…. America needs a course correction and the guy who’s driving it is not interested in that. We’re lost and going the wrong way. The point for me is that King is and can be our GPS. He can be the way to get back on the right track to get America moving in the right direction.” 

“Death of a King: A Live Theatrical Experience” will make it’s debut on King’s birthday on January 15th at the (appropriately named) King’s Theatre in Brooklyn. The show is scheduled to stop in 40 different cities including a stop in Memphis, TN on April 4th. In the city where he was killed on that day’s 50th anniversary. When I asked Smiley if performing this show on these significant dates would take a toll on him emotionally he simply laughed and replied: “I’m trying not to think about it, but I know it’s going to be emotional.”

At the end of the day, King’s message and philosophies are as important as ever and being able to bring it to the people is one of Smiley’s greatest joys. “It is my great and deep honor,” Smiley explains, “to be able to try and share a bit more about him that might allow us to see him for who he really was. To finally come to terms with his real legacy and to get more serious about how to create an America that will one day be as good as it’s promise. We’re not quite there yet. In this country, there is too much of a gap between the promise of America and the possibilities in America for every fellow citizen. There’s work to be done, and if I can reintroduce King to some, and introduce him to others, I’ll feel like I have done my job.”

Smiley also told me that he and J.J. Abrams have just finalized an agreement to turn “Death of a King” into a TV miniseries at the end of 2018 and are currently in the casting phase for the project.

 

You can find tickets and tour dates for “Death of a King: A Live Theatrical Experience” here.