Yolanda King contributes to the dream from on stage Heritage: The eldest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to find her own way to follow her father, and she has.

February 10, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Yolanda King learned her father was shot when television broadcast a special bulletin. She was on the phone with a friend of the family when another special bulletin announced he was dead.

"To this very day when a special bulletin comes on TV, my heart skips a beat," she says.

The first-born daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just 12 years old when her father was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., 29 years ago.

Tonight, Yolanda King comes to Baltimore, bringing her one-woman theatrical tribute to her father, "Achieving the Dream," to the National Aquarium at 7 p.m. in the Lyn P. Meyerhoff Auditorium.

"I've always wanted to find a way to continue his ideas and philosophy in a theatrical form," she says, from her hotel in McAllen, Texas. She's been on the road for a month, in a different city almost every night, acting and talking about her father's life and work.

In the first half of "Achieving the Dream," King portrays half-a-dozen "modern people with problems." Her father appears on film and video. She says he's the conscience of the piece.

"I portray live characters who interact with video characters," she says. "Literally, the audience has to go back and forth between watching films and watching my live stage acting."

The performance's second half, she says, "deals with how the lessons of the civil rights movement can be applied today, through storytelling, narrative and poetry. That is, me telling these stories as opposed to me playing a character.

"These pieces," she says, "are really an affirmation of and my faith in his dream and that it can be realized."

The dream her father preached, she says, "is a society, culture and world where each and every child can have the opportunity to be the best they can be."

Yolanda King had some troubles along the way to becoming the best she can as an actress. People wanted King's oldest daughter to continue his struggle for civil rights, but they weren't sure the theater was the right way.

"I tried to live up to all of their expectations and realized I was not Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott King," she says. "They were tremendous human beings."

She had to make a real effort to separate Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader and Nobel prize winner, from Martin Luther King, her father.

"Just to be able to live a normal life, I've had to be able to make the separation," she says, especially when it comes to his death. "I think about Martin Luther King the man, not the pain I felt because that's my Daddy."

She reconciled that conflict but she's never lost the commitment to her parents' ideals.

"And I had to find the ability to express my own special contribution," she says.

She found acting and the theater. But she still had to get past skepticism -- her own and others' -- about the value of that choice.

Her father, she recalls, really hoped acting was a phase she'd grow out of. But her mother was always supportive and still is.

King wrote a play when she was 8 -- during church while her father was preaching. She directed it with her brother and sister in the cast.

After that, her mother enrolled her in the acting school run by the parents of actress Julia Roberts, then the only integrated theater school for children in Atlanta.

At 16, King created a furor in Atlanta when she played a prostitute in "The Owl and the Pussycat" and kissed a white man. People threatened to leave her grandfather's church. She had to get up in Ebenezer Baptist Church and placate the congregation. Through it all her mother stood firm.

"She's CEO, president, vice president and defender of the Yolanda King Fan Club," the daughter says.

By now, King is totally convinced the arts are tremendously influential on people's behavior.

For 10 years she roamed the country with Attallah Shabazz, the oldest daughter of Malcolm X, with productions geared toward young people, playing churches, community centers, schools, even prisons.

"That was a great time and an important time in my life," she says. "It was very symbolically significant for us to come together since our fathers were never allowed to. I know their goals were very much the same."

Three decades have passed since the march on Washington and Dr. King's "I have a Dream" speech. Yolanda King says she sees progress toward his goals.

"I travel a lot," she says. "And I see communities accomplishing social change. I see young people trying to find themselves meaningful lives. I see unsung heroes and heroines going about their work quietly. I see these people and I'm more optimistic about the future."

But, she adds, there are still "too many people locked out of the system. And we are still reckoning with that history of racism and interracial conflict in America.

"The Sixties changed important laws and some people's behavior. But it still takes more to change people's minds and hearts. It takes a little more."

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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