Stage Door Review
Sunday, October 25, 2020
by Jeff Stetson, directed by Rosemary Doyle
Theatre Kingston, Kingston
September 30-October 18, 2020
Malcolm: “We’re all pawns"
I felt extremely lucky to have caught the third last performance of The Meeting staged by Theatre Kingston. Not only was it a pleasure in itself to see a play indoors (with Covid safety protocols in effect), but American Jeff Stetson’s 1987 play, given an fine, urgent performance by TK, could not be more pertinent to today’s discussion of race and politics. Stetson’s hour-long play imagines a meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X in 1965 where the two men discuss their quite different views on how Black people can attain their civil rights. It’s a gripping play of ideas that is so relevant it’s hard to believe it was not written this year.
Stetson sets The Meeting in Malcolm X’s seventh-floor room in the Teresa Hotel in Harlem. Malcolm (Paul Smith), whose house in Chicago had been firebombed earlier that morning, is understandably on edge. He debates with his bodyguard Rashad (Johnny Jordon) whether King, who is also in New York City, will bother to show up or not. King (Cassel Miles), however, does show up but not for the reasons Malcolm had hoped. Malcolm has invited King because he views King’s stance of non-violent protest as inviting White people to harm Blacks. King has come, not to debate, but to offer what comfort he can to a man whose house has been destroyed and whose wife and daughter are frightened.
By 1965 Malcom X (1925-65) had already served time in prison and converted to Islam and changed his last name from “Little” to “X” to rid himself of a slave-owner’s name. He joined the group Nation of islam which advocated Black supremacy and the separation of Black and White Americans, with the goal being a return of Blacks to Africa free of American or European control. Malcolm’s gift of oratory led to his rise as spokesman for Nation of Islam and to a dramatic increase in its membership. Yet, by the time of the play Malcolm had become disillusioned with Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm converted from Nation of Islam’s brand of Islam to standard Sunni Islam and went on the hajj to Mecca after which he founded his own organization to work for civil rights and pan-African unity.
By 1965 King (1929-68), a Baptist minister, became the best-known leader of the American civil rights movement. Unlike Malcolm X, his goal was not the separation but the integration of Blacks and Whites in society. Unlike Malcolm he was inspired by the New Testament beliefs in “turn the other cheek” and “love thine enemy”, notions of supposed passivity that Malcolm X abhorred. King was also directly influenced by the success of the nonviolent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi. Whereas Malcolm X believed in the use of force or violence if necessary to show the strength of Blacks, King believed strength lay, paradoxically, in the capacity of Blacks to suffer for what they believed in. In 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize Malcolm looked down on as Whites awarding King for pursuing civil rights in a way most acceptable to Whites.
King and Malcolm did meet once, on March 26, 1964, but only long enough to be photographed. Stetson puts on stage what the two might have discussed if only they had had a longer meeting. Stetson brings out all the ideological conflicts of the two in the most natural way, with both Malcom and King supporting their views with personal experiences. Stetson keeps the opposing view of the two leaders in remarkable balance. This he makes concrete by having the two engage in an arm-wrestling match which ends in a draw.
Malcolm X, shown as inclined to a cynicism alien to King, at times wonders how important he or King is to the movement they lead. Or, in other words, have movements whose time has come pushed them forward as leaders and controlled them rather than the other way around? At one point Malcolm, referring to the chess board he has before him, muses that “We are all pawns”.
The notion of their dispensability hangs like a pall over the action. On February 21, 1965, the day after the action of the play, Malcolm will make his famous address to the Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom. There he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam, angered at Malcolm’s renunciation of the group. Three years later on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated as he stood on motel balcony by a segregationist White man. Stetson foreshadows this event by showing King’s apprehension in joining Malcolm on the balcony of his hotel room.
Stetson has Malcolm sum up his differences with King by saying, “You want to make the White man stop hating the Blacks. I want to stop the Black man from hating himself.” While this statement points to the opposing approached of the two leaders, it also shows that the goals of the two are not mutually exclusive. One of the many pleasures of the play is to see how Stetson manages to shift the dialogue from one of complete opposition to one of mutual understanding.
Under Rosemary Doyle’s taut but unforced direction the action flows naturally but with an undertow of tension that does not entirely relax by the end since we know the fates that will befall the two great men we have come to know. Paul Smith portrays Malcom X as so tightly wound up with anger we feel he could explode at any time. And yet, that impression comes from the force of Smith presence. It’s a relief when we see Smith’s Malcolm X sing a Billie Holliday song along with Rashad and realize that this formidable leader can also smile and laugh.
As Rashad, Johnny Jordan serves as a laid-back foil to Malcolm’s anger. Jordan treats Rashad’s unwavering faith in Malcolm and his cause as a source of strength and calm in contrast to the uneasiness of the leader himself.
Cassel Miles is well cast as Martin Luther King, Jr. Though he looks nothing like King, Miles’s sonorous voice and thoughtful manner of delivering his lines immediately calls King to mind. Miles fulfils Stetson’s warm portrayal of King as ever the preacher and counsellor against whom Malcolm appears more like a fiery but troubled youth. A fact stated in the play is that Malcom looks younger than King but is actually older. In the production it is easy to imagine that Miles’s King is older than Smith’s Malcolm, but not the reverse.
The black box performance space inside the Tett Centre has been configured for alley staging with set designer Deborah Ann Frankel and costume designer Kei Yano accurately capturing the 1960s period. Seats on each side of the set are on two levels. Those one the same level as the performance space are physically distanced in groups of one, two or tree. Six feet behind these seats are risers where the seats are in groups of two or four, each group isolated by clear plastic panels. The theatre as presently arranged can hold 38 audience members who are told to keep their masks on for the duration of the performance. In pre-Covid days it could like hold twice that number. On seeing the layout I thought that Theatre Kingston had really succeeded in imagining how an theatre company could safely present a play indoors – a pattern that other companies could follow in black box theatre.
The Meeting was accorded eight NAACP Awards in 1987 and it is easy to see why. In only an hour it sets forth two paths to Black civil rights in the 1960s in a thorough and balanced manner. The play is not only fascinating in itself but would be a great starting platform for discussion of race and politics today, and how to achieve social justice. If it were at all possible it would be great service if Theatre Kingston’s thoughtful production could tour the province. Also, now that Theatre Kingston has demonstrated that with careful planning it is possible to stage plays indoors during the pandemic, let’s hope that other theatre companies follow suit.
For tickets, visit www.theatrekingston.com.
Photos: Cassel Miles as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Paul Smith as Malcolm X. © 2020 Tim Fort.