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Tavis Smiley to bring multimedia King tribute to Chicago, other cities

Tavis Smiley | Getty Images

“The man you know. The story you don’t.”

That’s the tagline for Tavis Smiley’s stage adaptation of his book “Death of a King,” which focuses on the final year of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life before his assassination in 1968.

“If you only know him in 1963, you don’t know the real Dr. King,” Smiley says of the activist best known for his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” and less for his evolution as a leader later in his life. “Most of us don’t know what he had to say near the end of his life because we’re stuck in 1963.”

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s death, the 40-city tour kicks off in Brooklyn, N.Y., on King’s birthday, Jan. 15, and comes to the Chicago Theatre later that week on Jan. 20.

The tour boasts a multimedia experience including narration by Smiley, musical compositions by pianist Marcus Roberts and three 12-by-12 foot screens showing footage of King and his inner circle during his last year alive.

“It’s the stage presentation that hasn’t been done” in a theater, Smiley says, and he predicts audiences will “be entertained by it, but they’ll also be empowered by it.” Smiley teased that sections will feature audience participation.

Various musicians will appear in select cities, sitting in the audience of the show before joining Roberts and Smiley onstage for surprise guest performances.

Turning an almost 300-page book into a 35-page stage production was no easy feat for the multihyphenate media personality, but Smiley says audiences will “end up with 90 minutes of the choicest, richest, most rewarding moments of [King’s] life.”

“This moment is begging for us to remember King,” Smiley says of his desire to “get America to focus on what King was trying to tell us then.”

In the spirit of King’s philanthropic legacy, Smiley wants to use the production to give back to communities across the country by surprising students in select cities with complimentary performances at local high schools.

Smiley also said audiences will be able to text in donations to The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

When planning the cities and venues, Smiley and his team discovered that the first venue of the tour in Brooklyn is coincidentally named Kings Theatre.

“That’s just a sign that we’re where we’re supposed to be, we’re starting on his actual birthday in Kings Theatre,” Smiley says. “It wasn’t even planned. It is providential.”

Anika Reed, USA TODAY