AP Lang begins studying “The Mountaintop,” sparking discussions about race and cultural appropriation


via Playbill

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett perform in the Broadway production of “The Mountaintop”. Recently, both AP Lang and American Literature began studying “The Mountaintop” in their classes, leading to controversy about how to study the play.

Two years ago, the American Literature course team decided to change one of their core texts from “The Crucible” to “The Mountaintop”. This year, Advanced Placement Language and Composition (AP Lang) made the same switch — a decision that also came with controversy about how the play should be studied and how students should be assessed. 

“The Crucible” is a 1953 play by American playwright Arthur Miller, telling the story of the Salem Witch Trials, a time of mass hysteria and accusations of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts in the late 17th century. The play, written and debuted during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, used the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory for McCarthyism, a period in American history similarly driven by hysteria about Communism and left-wing activity in the United States. Many critics regard it as one of the most essential dramas in American history. 

“It’s like a soap opera — it’s overly dramatic, with many big, over-the-top scenes,” English teacher Carrie Abel Shaffer said. “It’s fun.”

“The Mountaintop” is a much different play. Premiering just 14 years ago in London, the play is a fictionalized retelling of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive before his assassination. The play takes the audience through King’s interactions with a guardian angel, Camae, sent to bring him to heaven, changing rapidly between humor, introspection and social commentary. As opposed to “The Crucible”’s complex, four-act structure, “The Mountaintop” never changes setting, features only one act and stars only two characters — King and Camae. 

Abel said that AP Lang opted to study “The Mountaintop” instead of “The Crucible” in part to increase the diversity of content students learn in class. 

“We have a goal as the English department to be more critical of the texts that we’re reading and making sure that we have a diverse set of authors,” Abel said.

AP Lang only studies a small handful of core texts — besides “The Mountaintop”, they read “The Great Gatsby,” a 1925 novel that’s often cited as one of the best American novels of all time, and “The Things They Carried,” a series of fictional, intertwined short stories about the Vietnam War from the perspective of American troops. 

Abel noted that, previously in AP Lang, students studied “The Crucible” and “The Scarlet Letter” back-to-back: two works that explore Puritan, colonial America. “The Mountaintop” — which is set centuries later and which explores very different themes — was implemented tentatively to create more variation in the curriculum. 

“It made sense to try it,” Abel said. “It’s not an adopted text, but we’re trying it out this year — it brings in many different conversations than ‘The Crucible’ did.”

“When we look to replace a piece, we want to ensure that the integrity of the new piece matches the classroom,” American Literature teacher Michael Smith said. “‘The Crucible’ is a timeless classic, but once you start talking about witch trials, there’s a huge disconnect with students’ lives.”

However, the implementation of “The Mountaintop” has not been without controversy. Last year, the major assignment for “The Mountaintop” was a reenactment of a scene from the play. However, this year, teachers have changed the major assignment to an analysis essay, due in part to concerns about the use of non-Black students performing the play’s African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) style in class. Much of the play’s dialogue is written in AAVE, a spoken dialect commonly used in African-American communities. However, a number of students have raised concerns about the use of AAVE in class, arguing that it can be seen as cultural appropriation.

Hall herself has protested the white casting of King in previous renditions of “The Mountaintop”. In an essay published to African-American magazine The Root, which was studied in English classes as part of the unit, Hall sharply criticized Kent State University’s decision to have a white actor play King, arguing that the play is meant to be played by Black actors, and that casting a white actor in a commercial performance contributes to the historical trend of Black erasure in American drama. Positions like these sparked a debate among students and teachers about non-Black students reading a script largely written in AAVE for a grade. For example, while some classes opted for an ungraded reenactment, some opted not to perform the play at all. 

“I enjoyed reading The Mountaintop’ because we see King in a different light,” AP Lang student junior Madi Tan said. “However, we do have to be particularly careful when we’re learning about it in order to be respectful.”

Junior Hailey Knauss, another student in AP Lang, enjoyed reading “The Mountaintop,” but she expressed concerns about reenacting the play in class. 

“The fact that we were expected to present and rehearse the play in AAVE made me uncomfortable,” Hailey said. “I felt that I was impersonating someone and generally using offensive language, given the historical oppression of Black people. The playwright didn’t intend ‘The Mountaintop’ for non-Black actors.”

Some teachers also had concerns with the performance aspect of the play, both about cultural appropriation and familiarity. 

“I think this was too big a step for a lot of our students,” Smith said. “Some students were not familiar with some of the words and treated them jokingly. A lot of students could not handle that. And a lot of students were struggling with what to say or not say.”

“We’re talking to students a lot and doing our own personal reflections,” Abel said. “While I think that the play has wonderful qualities, I have concerns about ‘The Mountaintop’ as a performance-based unit. We want to make sure we’re honoring history and cultures.”

However, Smith also opined that it’s important to study Black culture — including language. 

Some students raised concerns about the reenactment being an example of cultural appropriation, but Smith said their fears may be unfounded. 

“A bunch of people don’t know anything about the culture that’s being discussed, which is really a veil that people need to stop hiding behind,” Smith said. “It’s sad to think that all of a sudden, a play that has another dialect might be labeled by others as cultural appropriation.”

Additionally, for American Literature and AP Lang students, any performance assignments is not based on how well they replicate the patterns of AAVE. 

“I would never support an assignment where students were graded based on how they sounded,” Smith said. “I think that opens up a floodgate of potential racism.”