Interview: Living the Dream
Actor Gerald C. Rivers recreates speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Saturday afternoon’s MLK celebration in Culver City
By Bliss Bowen
Much to his own surprise, classically trained actor Gerald C. Rivers has established a curious career for himself recreating the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the legendary civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.
Raised in Compton and educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Rivers first memorized and performed a King speech as a teenager from a record his grandmother had given him. More than 30 years later, he’s still performing at least three different shows he’s developed from King’s writings in which he eerily captures King’s passionate delivery, vocal tone and cadence.
The affable La Cañada Flintridge resident receives calls for his MLK presentations from churches, schools, hospitals, rehab centers, prisons and homeless shelters, primarily between January and April; he’ll make three appearances this weekend, starting with an MLK celebration at the Culver City Senior Center.
King, Rivers says, “could be a spokesperson for the Black Lives Matter movement.”
What will you perform Saturday?
I haven’t decided yet. I have literally dozens of Martin Luther King speeches memorized.
That’s a lot to commit to memory.
Yeah. And I had the honor of going to Boston University, to the research library where they hold many of his handwritten papers. As a respected student and scholar of Dr. King, I was given access to those papers and sat in a room for several hours, and they just brought me boxes and boxes. So I’m familiar with more than I present, because some of those writings represent the early beginnings of speeches or sermons that were transformed in real time when he got to deliver them.
Can you give an example of how that illuminated a speech you deliver?
Before Martin Luther King went to Washington D.C. to deliver the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he was in Detroit delivering “The American Dream.” This was part of his whistle-stop tour, going around saying that the whole idea of America is simply a dream of a land [for] men of all races — that whole “black man, white man, Jews and Gentiles” comes from “The American Dream.”
Here’s what I learned from the writing: He wrote more than anything else about abundance and prosperity. He believed that there was enough to go around; there was enough money, enough jobs, enough homes, enough cars, enough opportunities for everybody. And from a metaphysical standpoint, there was this perception of lack and limitation that would lead people to places of greed and poverty.
The writings clearly indicate that if people ever got that there really was enough for everybody, it would change the way everybody felt. So the work that he was doing about racial equality and segregation and discrimination, those were merely [stepping stones] to the real work, which was getting everybody to recognize that there was enough for everybody. The writings were incredibly illuminating in that way, because they weren’t just about race. They were about spirituality, personal responsibility, prosperity and abundance.
There have been relatively few commentaries about those early writings.
I’m getting chills just thinking about having been there. You have to wear white gloves because the oil from your hands will deteriorate the pages — literally the pages that he held in his hands and wrote.
Two things that people often reference in terms of where he was moving toward the end of life: the Vietnam War, and the War on Poverty. That was the shift in his focus. Those were the two things that many people believe led to his death. On some level, there were people in power who knew eventually that racial equality would have to come. Those same people, however, the Kennedys included, did not want a redistribution of wealth. That was often considered communist views or socialist thinking, and that was anti-democratic and anti-American. … We know that our economy is often tied to war; that we feel like we’re generating more money and employing more people when we have to build bombs and weapons and send people off to fight. He felt the very opposite was true: the money we’re spending in engaging in war we could be reinvesting into our own communities and country, to rebuild the economy from the bottom up. …. He said there’s millions of people in America [in] poverty while they’re living in an affluent society, and many of them are white.
That remains true.
That’s the reason that the work I do is still relevant. Because when you listen to these speeches, they’re timeless. If I were not to say “Vietnam” or “napalm gas” … it would sound like we were talking about Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the poor people being bombed out of their homes while we’re trying to destroy in a war we can’t win.
America is wrestling with thorny questions about racism and justice, particularly in the aftermath of the Charleston shootings and the deaths of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin… the list goes on … and the racist demagoguery of political actors like Donald Trump. Does that inspire you to create a new theatrical piece?
If people listen to the pieces that already exist, because of King’s profound ability to transcend time, they will hear things … Hopefully they will hear things in context and relevance of what’s going on today. That’s why I still have a job. I never thought I’d be doing this for 30-plus years. I thought, like an actor, it’s going to have a shelf life, it’s going to run its course, and I grew my hair. I thought, “People are not going to want to hear Dr. King with dreadlocks.” But people are like, “Put your hair in a ponytail and get your ass over here, because we need to hear what you have to say.”
Culver City’s 11th annual Dr. Martin Luther King celebration presents Gerald C. Rivers as King at the Culver City Senior Center, 4095 Overland Ave., Culver City, at noon on Saturday, Jan. 16. The entire event runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and also features a screening of Jeremy Dean’s film “Dare Not Walk Alone,” singer-songwriter Danny Sandock, and various panel discussions.
Call (310) 253-6675 or visit culvercity.org for information about the event. For more on Rivers, visit geraldcrivers.com.