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Merlene Davis: Actor inspired by King hopes to inspire us on MLK Day

Daniel Beaty teaches people to "transform our pain into power."
Daniel Beaty teaches people to "transform our pain into power."

The Martin Luther King Day Commemorative Program in Heritage Hall Monday will include a twist. Instead of having a dignitary reminding us of King's passion for equality and his willingness to die for it, those in attendance will see through a one-man performance by Daniel Beaty how King's influence helped one person overcome difficult circumstances.

Beaty, an actor, singer and poet, wrote and performs Emergency, winner of the 2007 Obie Award for writing and performance in Off-Broadway theater.

"The audience should expect a story filled with inspiration, humor and passion that reflects the message of unity that Martin Luther King was about," Beaty said. "Dr. King is my greatest hero, and I am deeply honored to be celebrating his legacy."

In Emergency, we hear news reports of a slave ship rising out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty, causing a stunned nation to explore a lot of emotions. For about 80 minutes and through some 40 characters, Beaty takes the audience from the days of slavery to now. The characters include a homeless man, a street vendor, a young boy from the projects, a business executive and a scientist.

"Slavery is one of the times of the most bondage in this country," Beaty said, "and the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of our greatest liberty. It's about what stands in front of our liberty."

The message, he said, "is how do we transform our pain into power? No matter what happens, we have the power to choose what we do. A lot of time, it is out of pain, out of unhealed past issues."

Because of an emotionally difficult childhood in Dayton, Ohio, Beaty knows about transforming pain into power. The father he loved was addicted to heroin and spent a lot of time behind bars because of it. He remembers visiting his father, who was behind a glass partition and untouchable.

His father remained unreachable with the exception of the brief moments when he would reappear before being arrested again, Beaty said.

Despite the best efforts of his mother, his older brother became addicted to crack cocaine and sometimes became violent. Beaty frequently fled his home to avoid problems. He recalled that during one of the escapes, he envisioned himself dressed in black and speaking to a large audience. That image, he said, kept him grounded during many shaky periods of his life. He always knew there was a purpose for his life, he said.

Beaty was helped to see that purpose by teachers who served as mentors. One, his third grade teacher, didn't think it was too far-fetched when he said he wanted to write speeches like King's.

Instead, she took time to help him, and that began his love of words and a life of giving speeches at churches, civic functions and, by sixth grade, throughout the country.

The principal of a private school heard one of those speeches and encouraged him to try for a scholarship. Beaty received it and graduated from Yale University and the American Conservatory Theatre.

After performing throughout the world, Beaty moved to New York two weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. He taught acting, singing and writing in Brooklyn, Harlem and Bronx schools. Those experiences helped him create Emergency.

"I developed an immense sense of emergency around the world our children are presently living in and the world we are leaving for them," Beaty said.

Beaty performed the one-man play at the University of Kentucky in February. "The audience was extremely warm the last time, and people were very responsive. Some of them said others should see this," he said.

And now they can. The commemorative program starts at 11 a.m. Monday after the march through downtown. It is free.

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