What if two iconic figures in the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had a chance to sit down together to discuss their differing philosophies, beloved families and uncertain futures?
That is the fascinating premise of Renegade Theater’s production of Jeff Stetson’s one-act play, “The Meeting,” directed by Daniel Oyinloye. Thought provoking, intelligent and witty, the performance, while decidedly political, also afforded the actors a chance to open a window into the anguished souls of these two visionaries.
In real life, King and Malcolm X met just once. On March 26, 1964, on Capitol Hill, both were attending a Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. A photographer snapped a now-tragic picture of the two — both later victims of assassination — who would never meet again.
Set in a Harlem hotel room on Valentine’s Day 1965, the play opens with a discussion between Malcolm X (Julian Williams) and his bodyguard Rashad (Gabriel Mayfield) as they wait for King (Carl Crawford) to arrive.
Rashad gives his boss militant arguments on why he shouldn’t be meeting with King at all. Though he is only onstage for a brief time, Mayfield effectively provides both comic moments and the angry face of the charged atmosphere of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” movement.
When Dr. King arrives, the two men warily greet each other with “Still the dreamer” and “Still the revolutionary.” The battle lines are drawn, contrasting King’s peaceful “non-violence, the only road to freedom” approach to the movement and the racial powder keg that Malcolm X once wrote could erupt “in an uncontrollable explosion.”
For some of the conversation, Williams is a little more low-key than might be expected as the firebrand activist, yet, on the whole, he carries his own, even with the gravitas and understated power that Crawford brings to his role as Dr. King.
Though Malcolm X was actually three years older than Dr. King, Williams looks (and is) considerably younger than Crawford. Williams is believable, however, in showing how tired and conflicted Malcolm X was at this time (just a week before he would be assassinated).
While giving a few glimpses into the lofty oratory that King was famous for, here he is more of a listener, who still finds the right moments to challenge his philosophical foil. Crawford captures the essence of a man who is ready to die for his beliefs and tragically did not make it to “the mountaintop” as he predicted.
The two men’s solid performances breathe life into what could have been hollow portrayals from a history book and instead reveal their shared pain, passion and fatalism.
Over 50 years later, the central tragedy brought to the forefront by this play is that the grand future that both men envisioned of a time when all people would be equal has not come to pass.
King’s line echoing through the theater as the lights dimmed left the audience with the evening’s central message. “Just imagine what we could have accomplished if we joined hands in the same direction.”
If You Go
What: “The Meeting” one-act play and post-show discussion (“Act II”)
Where: Zeitgeist Teatro
When: Oct. 18-20 and 24-26. Evenings at 7:30 and matinee (Oct. 20) at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $20 for adults, $16 for students and seniors at 218-336-1412 or zeitgeistarts.com
Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews theater for the News Tribune.