Curtis High School, Grade 12
Who exactly was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Most of us know him to have been a civil rights leader and a powerful speaker, one who could move thousands of people with his words. We are familiar with the Montgomery bus boycott and his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. We can perhaps visualize him as a sort of American Gandhi, leading throngs of people in nonviolent protests, or even as a man of God, preaching the Word on a Sunday morning in his Baptist home church.
But Michael Murphy's new play The Conscientious Objector explores an aspect of King's life that is not nearly as well known as those mentioned above (to me, it was completely foreign): King's stance regarding the Vietnam War. The play chronicles, through the last few years of his life, King's progression from hesitant contemplation and quiet conflict to troubled vacillation, and ultimately to stark, outright opposition to the war. As both a moral figurehead for millions and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the King depicted in the play does not feel that, in good conscience, he can choose not to speak out against the war. On the other hand, by treading into the murky waters of foreign policy, he may very well be splitting and weakening the civil rights movement, and even sabotaging the domestic policy that he has worked so hard for. It is a dilemma that we can see preying on King's conscience for some time.
A major turning point occurs when, after being quietly absent from the country for a year, Dr. King suddenly delivers a startlingly radical anti-war speech at Riverside Church in New York City. In this speech, he urges "those young men now considering military service...to apply for conscientious objector status" (from which comes the title of the show). The speech provokes heated responses from a wide range of critics and creates quite a stir. King can no longer make use of evasive phrasing and tactful statements--he has now taken a very clear stance and committed himself to the anti-war movement.
While King was alive, he was constantly under surveillance by the J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. His phones and hotel rooms were wiretapped, as were rooms in the White House itself. Indeed, many of King's conversations with President Johnson and others were recorded, and the transcripts of those tapes were used by Murphy in writing the script. So while some liberties were taken, The Conscientious Objectoris very historically accurate.
A large portion of the play revolves around the relationship between King and President Johnson. While they start out as allies, particularly over civil rights issues, they are increasingly alienated from each other, directly due to their divergence on the subject of the war. The scenes between the two men--with DB Woodside playing King and John Cullum playing Johnson--are brilliantly acted, and are especially gripping because we know that large sections of them are close to verbatim. Other particularly notable performances by the show's altogether stellar cast include an ever-devoted and supportive Coretta Scott King, played by Rachel Leslie, and a lively and impassioned James Bevel, played by Jimonn Cole.
Looking around the small theatre, I realized that I was easily the youngest person there, by several decades. I guess this was not a shock to me; The Conscientious Objector is a historical political drama, a little long and a little dry in places. But I highly recommend it to other teens regardless, for it's not only a fantastic piece of theatre--it is very relevant to us in particular. The play takes place during a time of war, and while many of us tend to forget this fact quite easily, we are in a time of war right now. And if the draft comes around again, we'll be the next generation to make the choice between serving or objecting.
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