A decade ago, it happened repeatedly. Actor and workshop leader Deondra Kamau Means would show second-grade audience members a photo of President Barack Obama. And the youngsters from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky would identify them as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Means saw the confusion as slightly troubling. He also saw it as a good reason for his and his peers’ teaching-sessions-turned-performances to continue with even more fervor with the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati.

“I initially was shocked,” said Means, speaking by phone recently from the traveling troupe’s Ohio office. “But those instances became teachable moments.”

The 42-year-old thespian will present the free, one-man musical, “Martin’s Dream,” at 2 p.m. Monday at The Commons, 300 Washington St. The Columbus Area Arts Council has organized the event to use the arts as a creative teaching tool. The Cincinnati troupe regularly produces such shows to engage students who might not otherwise focus on history and its importance.

Story continues below gallery

“Every student doesn’t learn best in the same, traditional, classroom-style format,” Means said.

Promotional material from the theater company states that the show, written by Means and other troupe members, is aimed primarily at students in grades 2 through 12 — even though local adult residents regularly attend such MLK Day events.

The story follows King from his childhood and spotlights him as “a funny, intelligent, passionate man whose faith, family and education made him one of the most revered people in our nation’s history,” according to organizers.

The hour-long production includes part of the famous oratory that King delivered March 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. King, a celebrated and sometimes vilified leader of the civil rights movement, was shot and killed April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.

With only slight coaxing, Means paused a few seconds during his phone chat. And then he begin the lilting, poetic, ringing address with such a commanding authority that it sounded like the actual audio from the classic newsreel of the larger-than-life King.

Yet, Means has made certain that the production also includes some little-known tidbits about King. That includes the fact that he was a passionate pianist who once thought that might be a career path.

“We have to be able to talk about the very human aspects of this iconic figure who sometimes is so very far removed from reality,” Means said. “That’s important because each of us has a human piece of Dr. Martin Luther King within us.”

The performer who has been portraying King for more than a decade remains “fascinated at how intelligent and how eloquent he was.”

That famed eloquence is so important to means and to “Martin’s Dream” that he still rehearses the big speech regularly to make sure his oratory is as spot-on as possible.

Brittany King, chairwoman and co-organizer of the chapter of Black Lives Matter of Columbus, mentioned that she sees such educational presentations as significant. She added that she believes more students are learning about King from the Internet in general and social media in particular.

But she understands the concern that primary-grade students haven’t always known the civil rights leader from the nation’s president.

“I think that maybe that’s a testament to the fact that there are not very many, very visible, positive black role models in the world for younger people,” the chapter leader said.

Means mentioned that the drama ends with a reference to Obama to give viewers and listeners a perspective and kind of timeline from King’s early days to parts of his dream realized.

“But we still have a way to go,” the actor said. “That’s why is still so important to tell this story.”

A man from the mountaintop

What: “Martin’s Dream,” a musical work that the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati calls edutainment. It is a one-man show with actor and teaching artist Deondra Kamau Means.

When: 2 p.m. Monday.

Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St. in Columbus.

Admission: Free. The Columbus Area Arts Council has organized these programs on Martin Luther King Day since 2013 and secures support for the presentations.

Information: 812-376-2539 or artsincolumbus.org.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.