King, Yolanda 1955–
Yolanda King 1955–
Actress, theatrical director, producer, lecturer, activist
“I am an artist with very strong social and political concerns,” Yolanda King told Ebony magazine. The eldest daughter of civil rights legend Martin Luther King, Jr., Yolanda, like her siblings, is dedicated to continuing his work for social change. As an actress, writer, director, and producer of what she has termed “edutainment,” Yolanda educates her audiences through dramatic productions on a variety of important topics, from teenage pregnancy and drug abuse to civil rights history and her father’s crusade for equality. “Through the arts,” she explained in Ebony, “you can impact upon people’s attitudes, values, and understandings.”
Yolanda King began writing and directing socially relevant plays at a very early age. When she was just eight years old, she wrote a play about a queen receiving visitors from other countries who would share their culture with her. She put on the play with her brothers and sister. “Of course I played the queen,” she told Ebony. Yolanda soon joined an Atlanta-based children’s theater group. While still a teenager, she decided to pursue a career in acting. She told Peter Bailey in an interview for Essence magazine, “One of the things that forced me to make up my mind was the reaction to my playing the role of a prostitute in…The Owl and the Pussycat. An uproar followed, which forced me for the first time to think seriously about the implications of what I was doing. Prior to that, acting was mostly fun.”
Since then, King has voluntarily assumed a huge responsibility. Having taken on the voice of social consciousness for the generations of Americans born after the tragic murder of her father in 1968, she offers young people a unique and intimate view of the civil rights struggle that has been fought in the United States for more than thirty years. Recalling the painful price her father paid at the height of that struggle and the profound impact the experience had on her, King mused in a Rolling Stone interview: “They played one of his sermons at his funeral. I heard my daddy’s voice right before they laid him in the ground. I had to distance myself.… He was my first friend and he just…was…gone. I was thirty years old before I really started to mourn him.”
At a Glance…
Born Yolanda Denise King, November 17, 1955, in Montgomery, AL; daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. (a minister and civil rights leader) and Coretta Scott King. Education: Smith College, B.A., 1976; New York University, M.F.A., 1979.
Performing artist, producer, director, lecturer. Theatrical credits include The Owl and the Pussycat with the Actor’s Workshop of Atlanta, 1971; at NYU, appeared in Funny House of a Negro, Five on the Black Hand Side, The Amen Corner, Contributions, and Mahogany, 1976-79; appeared in television production King, 1978; cofounder and codirector of Nucleus (a performing arts company), 1979—; collaborator, with Attallah Shabazz, on plays Stepping into Tomorrow and Of One Mind; narrator, Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World, 1988; creator of multimedia work Tracks: A Celebration of the Words and Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, 1992; Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, GA, director of cultural affairs.
Addresses: Home —14 Washington Pl., #9E, New York, NY 10003; or c/o Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, 449 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30312.
University. At the same, Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X, was also studying acting in New York. In 1979 they were introduced to each other for the first time and featured in an article for Ebony magazine. King and Shabazz were bonded by their shared experience of growing up in the shadow of assassination. They also discovered a mutual commitment to social change. “As an artist and as a Black woman coming out of a background that emphasizes service, there are certain responsibilities that I must assume,” King told Ebony. “I see these responsibilities not as a burden, but as an extension of what I am.”
King and Shabazz are something of an odd couple: “Yolanda’s the cuddly, agreeable one, with a voice that rings up and down octaves when she is moved. Warrior-maiden Attallah is more guarded; there’s something fierce about her tears,” noted free-lance writer Ellen Hopkins, who interviewed the women for Rolling Stone. Despite their differences, though, they became friends. “Attallah and I are like day and night. But we agree to overlook things.…There’s a bond between us stronger than anything I’ve ever known,” King told Rolling Stone. When they were both asked to speak at high schools in Hartford, Connecticut, they decided to perform rather than merely talk to the students. With the help of a pianist, a singer, and two ministers, they were able to dramatize their message, and the theater group Nucleus was born.
Stepping into Tomorrow —the first show King, Shabazz, and the other members of Nucleus produced—is a musical about growing up. King plays an unwed teenaged mother; Shabazz plays a high achiever with no focus to her life. King told People magazine: “Instead of talking about ‘stay in school, believe in yourself no matter what mistakes you’ve made,’ we show characters who have gone through that in their lives. We show the triumph and completeness they are beginning to find—with the hope that these kids will also find some hope.” The members of Nucleus have taken their one-act musical to churches and community centers all over the United States. In December of 1990, the group celebrated the tenth anniversary of the play with a gala performance at the Crossroads Arts Academy in Los Angeles.
Another play they created, Of One Mind, gives both daughters the chance to present their own views of their fathers and how things might have been if they had lived. Although Martin Luther King, Jr., was an advocate of nonviolent resistance and Malcolm X is remembered for his more militant black separatist views, King and Shabazz feel that as the struggle for equality advanced, their fathers’ views were actually in the process of converging.
King also pursues artistic activities outside of Nucleus. As early as 1978, she was acting professionally, appearing in the television film King. A decade later, she narrated New Morning for the World, a musical composition for narrator and orchestra by Joseph Schwantner. And in 1992, she performed at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in her own multimedia work Tracks: A Celebration of the Words and Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She told Nadine Brozan of the New York Times: “The concept was to use [my father] as the conscience of the piece and create contemporary characters facing obstacles and concerns. I play sixteen characters, including six men, two Chinese, two elderly women and a young child, and in every instance they are trying to find purpose, meaning and fulfillment. You hear my father’s words and see his presence through the slides and video and live performance.”
King also contributes her time to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. As director of cultural affairs, she coordinates a week-long series of events each January to honor her father. She also plans, produces, and directs artistic events that promote her father’s philosophy.
As the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King, Yolanda King grew up in an atmosphere that fostered a strong sense of social consciousness. When she was only sixteen years old, King was asked by Ebony contributor Robert E. Johnson if she wanted to seek revenge against the man who shot her father. She replied that killing him would not solve the problem. “I really don’t think that doing anything to James Earl Ray [the assassin], hurting him, would really erase what has happened or would contribute to his punishment,” she reasoned. “It is my belief that it is not just James Earl Ray, it’s the whole system…that killed my father.”
King also has a strong commitment to political activism and participates with her family in acts of peaceful political protest. In 1988, for instance, she was arrested with her mother and brothers and sister for demonstrating against the South African policy of apartheid. And King has shown that when political and theatrical work clash, politics sometimes wins. After voters in Arizona rejected a proposal in 1990 to institute a paid holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., she joined a boycott of the state, sending an understudy in her place for a scheduled appearance there with Nucleus.
King maintains a busy public speaking schedule. A compelling lecturer, she focuses on the need for young African Americans to remember the past as they forge their own futures. In a speech given at the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York in 1985, she stated, as reported by the New York Times: “Those in my generation are now laid-back and unconcerned, forgetting the sacrifices that allowed them to get away with being so laid-back. Those of my generation did not have to deal directly with the ugly wounds of segregation—the snapping dogs and the searing hoses. They may seem like misty images of a horror story. But the civil rights movement was not a mirage, it was not a documentary, it was not a television special. It was live and in living color.”
Although her activities vary, her purpose and message are constant. On stage, at the podium, or behind the scenes, King’s goal is to reach as many people in as many ways possible to communicate a single idea: that with hard work, mutual respect, and commitment to change, people of all colors can live together in peace.
Chicago Defender, January 16, 1986; January 13, 1987; February 13, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, August 3, 1992, sec. 5, p. 3.
Ebony, April 1972, pp. 74-82; May 1979; January 1987, pp. 25-34.
Essence, January 1982, pp. 78, 102, 107-08. Jet, January 27, 1986; January 18, 1988; January 22, 1990; December 3, 1990; December 24, 1990.
Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1992, sec. CAL, pp. 5,84.
New York Times, June 21, 1971; January 31, 1988; December 8, 1990; December 10, 1990; July 20, 1992.
People, September 5, 1983, pp. 99-101.
Rolling Stone, November 30, 1989, pp. 76-84, 120-24.
Also see entry on Shabazz, Attallah, in this volume of Contemporary Black Biography.
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