February being Black History Month the Ocean State Theater in Warwick has brought back a 1987 play, “The Meeting.” African-American playwright and screenwriter Jeff Stetson brings together two major leaders who had very different ideas about improving the life and times of their fellow black Americans.
Dr. King, of course, developed a non-violent strategy. A minister with a Boston University PhD, he aimed to confront racism and violence strongly but without turbulence.
Malcolm saw it another way. Coming from a most difficult childhood, having spent time in jail where he converted to Islam, he said, free our people by any means necessary.
Playwright Stetson places his story in a Bronx hotel in February 1965. Malcolm is already there, chatting with his bodyguard, a tough guy with a sense of humor. He calls King the “King of Love.” But he also tells Malcolm not to go near the drape-covered windows. He could be shot.
Enter King. Let the sparring begin. Why are you so cautious? Malcolm asks. It's time to fight. We can't win that way, King offers. We've got to win by exposing the ill-treatment we face.
Here “The Meeting” sort of falls over itself. Playwright Stetson aims to present two men with very different backgrounds and character. But he must also fill the room with the political/social themes of the times. The mixing of the two slows the pace, making it seem more like political science 101 rather than a clash between two men of great energy and ability.
So it's a good that this didactic approach eventually is improved by several factors. One is the terror of the times. You simply cannot help being effected by the crimes of the era. Talk about children being “blown up in their own church” has an unstoppable way of getting through the social mish-mash.
And this production is also saved by some very fine actors. The script seems to favor Malcolm X, giving his fighting ways prominence. And Damron Russel Armstrong takes full advantage of that. He's part fighting man and part underdog driven to great heights by great injustice.
Dr. King is done with solid professionalism by Marcus Denard Johnson. He brings us a Martin Luther King who is sure that his way is the right way but isn't completely sure that he will be around to see rightness win.
Tony Mitchell finds both fear and humor in a tough situation in the small role as the body man Director Amiee Turner has aided this meaningful production with videos from the past, We see Dr. King Marching. We see police dogs attacking. We see Lyndon Johnson struggling.
These pluses outrun the difficulties of the script. They make “The Meeting” a worthwhile enterprise, a play that'll bring back memories to many and inform others of tough times past.
Malcolm X was shot to death February 21st, 1965.
Martin Luther King was shot to death in April 4th, 1968.
Want to Go?
“The Meeting” continues at the Ocean State Theatre in Warwick through February 15.