Story: It’s St. Valentine’s Day, 1965 and an historic meeting is about to take place. Malcolm X, African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist, has invited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Baptist preacher and Civil Rights leader, to the hotel where he is staying in Harlem. Malcolm is scheduled to make an important speech that evening, but he has set aside the afternoon for a chance to meet his equally famous counterpart.
King arrives with a gift inside a small bag, mindful that Malcolm’s home in Chicago had been firebombed earlier, although none of his family was injured. Passing the frisking test of Malcolm’s disapproving bodyguard Rashad, King tentatively takes the temperature of his host. Gradually, they warm up to each other enough to exchange their thoughts and ideas about the future of America and its black citizens, as well as the roles of each of them in shaping that nation.
Highlights: Playwright Jeff Stetson’s one-act drama has been performed in all 50 states as well as more than a dozen foreign countries since its debut in 1980. It’s also been produced at The Black Rep previously, albeit many years ago. The current presentation features a pair of winning interpretations by Ka’ramuu Kush as Malcolm X and Matthew Galbreath as Dr. King.
Other Info: Running time for The Meeting is just 75 minutes, and yet this production often noticeably drags under producing director Ron Himes’ guidance. There’s considerable ‘dead space’ between lines, particularly early on when Kush and Phillip Dixon as Rashad await King’s arrival.
Pauses seem to linger beyond their purpose, giving this presentation an awkward and stilted start. Even as Rashad and Malcolm discuss the purposes of the game and the ironic black and white pieces on a coffee-table chess board, there seems to be an undercurrent of uncertainty in the delivery of lines.
Everything picks up when Galbreath arrives at the threshold of the hotel door. Himes has done an expert job with the ‘look’ of both Galbreath as King and Kush as Malcolm, the former short and stout with the familiar mustache, the latter tall and lean with reddish hair. The two men make for a suitable study in physical contrasts as different as their political philosophies.
The meeting is a fictional one, but Stetson sets up the situation nicely to allow each man to articulate his stance on the best way to achieve equal rights for his race in the highly segregated America of the mid-‘60s, one week before Malcolm X was assassinated. Interestingly, he died just short of his 40th birthday, as did King when he was assassinated three years later.
The two performers parry and thrust as they compare their geographical differences (Malcolm from the Midwest, King from the South) as well as their starkly varying approaches to achieving their goals. Malcolm questions King’s noted belief in civil disobedience, which the latter references as the tried and tested approach of Jesus and then Gandhi. King disapproves of Malcolm’s acceptance of violence to achieve a noble end, even as he admires the person.
There’s very little in the way of dramatic action in this ping-pong game of wills, so Stetson interjects an odd arm-wrestling sequence that turns into a best-of-three match, winner take all. You can guess who will win, or not, since the playwright presents both leaders equally. He also leavens proceedings with examples of King’s dry wit as well as Malcolm’s genuine love for his wife and children, revealing what touching gift King has brought along.
Jim Burwinkel’s set design handsomely reflects the look of a modest hotel 50 years in the past. Costume designer Marissa Perry dresses all three men in dark suits and white shirts and ties, again appropriate to the times for men in the public spotlight. Burwinkel’s lighting focuses on various areas of the set, including a balcony at stage right where the acrophobic King is coaxed out by an amused Malcolm for a wintry look at the city below.
The Meeting is a gentle and intelligent piece that is more history lesson than satisfying drama, a look at what might have been had these two visionary giants actually come face-to-face during their tragically too-short lives.
Play: The Meeting
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3101 Laclede
Dates: January 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, 26
Tickets: $35-$45; contact 534-3810 or theblackrep.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein