Every January, we celebrate a holiday in honor of fallen leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Actor-playwright Craig Alan Edwards has gone even further, creating an admirable one-man show that pays loving tribute to the man who literally gave all for his cause. Of course, by now much is known about a figure as accomplished as King, and 306 provides little information that is new to anyone familiar with the man. As a result, the 59E59 production, directed by Cheryl Katz, works better as a dramatic exercise than it does as a fresh biographical sketch.
Edwards depicts King on the last night of his life, in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee (hence the title) on April 3, 1968. King was to attend a rally advocating for sanitation workers. Edwards uses whatever means he can, including a phone call (we only witness King’s side of it) and direct address to tell his audience as much as he can about the man.
We are then privy to such details as King’s poor eating habits, his laziness, his egotism (the size of the crowds that await him matter to the man), and, of course, his seemingly habitual cheating. Edwards has King recite some of his achievements as an activist in the Civil Rights movement, even giving him a humorous aside about Rosa Parks.
There are other details that, while never revelatory, are interesting. For instance, he at various points has aspired to have a career in both baseball and opera. King had an affinity for pigeons. He struggled for his father’s approval. He even longed to marry a white waitress from the North. These facts aren’t exactly shoehorned in in checklist form, but the seams do show.
Edwards’ work, both on the page and the stage, is serviceable and heartfelt. He clearly demonstrates a great respect for his subject. But Katz cannot find anything inherently dramatic about 306. The only tension that exists at all comes from the fate we know awaits King by show’s end, and that’s steeped in history, not this work. (A discovery that one of his belongings has been wiretapped could be more shocking than it currently plays).
The actor also deserves credit for going a long way to approximate King as a figure, rather than mimic him (could that even be possible, given how visually iconic a man King was and is?). He captures the cadences of the man’s famous speaking rhythms, particularly when emulating the reverend’s sermons.
In other moments, particularly ones never witnessed by the public, Edwards excels at finding King’s emotional center. When reenacting a toast Martin Luther King Sr. delivered to his son, Edwards shows a child still desperate for parental approval. And his admission that his marriage to Coretta Scott King is as much about being a public partnership as it is a love bond is not only strikingly human, it also feels very relevant to a modern audience.
Katz’s technical elements are certainly worthy of praise, including Charlie Corcoran’s period set design of the motel room, Jessica Parks’ props, and Jill Nagle’s lighting design. Andy Cohen’s sound work integrates radio outtakes from 1968 to further the effect of taking the audience back in time.
This is an entirely honorable project. It is well-researched and well-intentioned. It’s just never quite as inspiring as its subject.