Bringing the Final Weeks of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Life to the Stage

Martin Rising tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final weeks in 1968. He spent those weeks supporting sanitation workers on strike in Memphis before he was murdered. The play is an original stage adaptation of Andrea Davis Pinkney's book, Martin Rising: Requiem for a King. It uses poetry from Pinkney’s book, as well as movement, music, and original scenes to bring Pinkney's words to life on the stage. 

Teen participants in the Martin Rising cast and crew hail from a number of area schools, including MCC Academy, Niles West High School, and Lincoln Junior High. All share a desire to present a meaningful theatrical experience, create art as part of an ensemble of their peers, and gain stage experience under the direction of our talented professional co-directors. “I like theater that’s saying something,” Niles North senior and cast member Emaurie Pelt said recently. “I knew a play about Martin Luther King, Jr. and labor rights was going to do that.” 

Reading lines for the play

Chicago playwright and poet Dominique Chestand adapted the book for the stage. The production is co-directed by Mikael Burke and Taryn Fisher. The project is made possible by a generous grant from the Skokie Community Foundation, and it is a partnership effort of Northlight Theatre, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and Skokie Public Library.

“We need to reclaim King from the sanitized version currently popular in our media and show him as he was in his final weeks: a man who suffered moments of despair and joy, whose life was constantly threatened by white Americans and their government, who had a wife and family, and who cared deeply about the deadly ways racism expressed itself in the exploitation of black workers,” said Chestand during a recent rehearsal at the library. “Martin Rising does all of that in a powerful way.” 

The cast has had unique opportunities to deepen their knowledge of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s lesser-known campaigns for justice and the civil rights movement. During the rehearsal process, the cast toured the Illinois Holocaust Museum's Steve Schapiro civil rights photography exhibit and Take a Stand center. They attended a performance and met the cast of Nina Simone: Four Women at Northlight Theatre. Each rehearsal also included discussion of labor rights and systemic racism.  

Andrea Davis Pinkney will attend the second public performance on February 24. She will talk about how she and her husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney, created the book and why they chose King’s final weeks as the focus for the story. She is thrilled to see her words come to life on stage. 

“I encourage readers in the afterward to Martin Rising to perform it in classrooms and theaters,” Pinkney noted in a recent phone conversation. “I always envisioned it as something that was performative, that could jump off the page. What Skokie Public Library and its partners have done by adapting the book into this complex theatrical event is beyond anything I’d hoped would be done with the book.” 

You can attend either of two performances of Martin Rising: Requiem for a King. 

The premier free performance is at 2 pm on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at Skokie Public Library. The second performance is at 1:30 pm on Sunday, February 24 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. That performance is free for Skokie Public Library cardholders. Following the performance, Andrea Davis Pinkney will speak about the book.