Actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr., on Ontario stage twice hit with racial slurs
'It struck me as ironic to be playing a role like this and to sort of come face to face with that'
An American actor who is set to portray Martin Luther King, Jr., in an upcoming stage production in London, Ont., says he's twice had racial slurs hurled at him in recent days.
In one case, E.B. Smith was walking down the street with his co-star, when a man passing by in a car yelled "the N-word at us."
The second time around, a man struck up a conversation with him at a restaurant and eventually swore at him, left and then returned to use the N-word in a follow-up exchange.
"It struck me as ironic to be playing a role like this and to sort of come face to face with that," Smith told CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive. "But it was also shocking to find it so, sort of, overtly, in London."
Smith, whose father is black and mother is white, said he has been in Canada for six years and this was the first time he had "experienced something quite that aggressive."
He didn't challenge the people who antagonized him or report the incidents to the police, but that didn't stop him from getting mad.
"There's a lot of anger in those moments. You get hit with something like that and it's clearly meant to demean, it's clearly meant to dehumanize and frankly, it's meant to provoke," Smith said. "And so, I think all of those impulses are definitely there, but I was also very conscious of being a foreigner and a visitor to London and I also didn't want to start anything."
Smith is set to perform in The Mountaintop at London's Grand Theatre. The play, which runs from Feb. 9 to 27, imagines the last night of King's life in 1968, right before the civil-rights leader was assassinated.
"The play talks a lot about racial intolerance and a lot about the forces that were at play that were counter to Martin Luther King's non-violent movement and his philosophy," Smith said. "How to stay peaceful in the face of such brutality."
'A strange, shocking experience'
Smith said the recent incidents have reinforced in his mind the importance of the work he is doing on stage in London.
"It really brought home just how important it was to do this play right now and in this community, which I've since learned since these incidents happened, has sort of an ongoing history with racial intolerance and religious intolerance," Smith said.
During the recent federal election campaign, more than a dozen signs belonging to Khalil Ramal, the Liberal candidate for London-Fanshawe, were defaced with the works 'Arab scum.'
"So, it's really bringing to the fore just how important it is that a community like this sort of step up and speak out and have a bit more of a proactive discussion, as opposed to, sort of talking about these things when they happen as isolated incidents," Smith said of the most recent incident.
Beryl Bain is Smith's co-star in The Mountaintop. She witnessed the first incident that occurred.
"It's one of those things that happens so infrequently that when it does happen, it really throws you for a loop, you know?" she said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "So, it's not something that happens to me very often, but when it does, it's pretty affecting. It feels weird, you know? It's just like a strange, shocking experience."