It’s 1965. In a hotel room in Harlem, Malcolm X talks to his bodyguard, while waiting for a visit from Martin Luther King, Jnr. The bodyguard doesn’t understand why his boss wants to meet with a man who advocates non-violent confrontation. Malcolm knows that both he and Martin are fighting for the same cause. Perhaps this meeting could be illuminating for them both?
the men only met once – briefly, while attending the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Malcolm X had written a letter to King requesting a meeting: “it is a disgrace
for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge our ‘minor’ differences in order
to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a Common Enemy.”
Meeting, a 1987
play by Jeff Stetson, wonders what that meeting would have been like. But the
play is set in February 1965 – well after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, days
after Malcolm X’s home was fire-bombed and days before his assassination.
years from the time the play is set, the drama of what Malcolm and Martin might
have said to each other if they had met alone, turns not on how these two important
figures of the US Civil Rights Movement might have found common ground – but on
whether society has made any progress at all.
in fact, diagrams the men as polar opposites in their approach to achieving freedoms
and equality for Black men and women in America. Violence versus passive
resistance. A Muslim minister opposite a Baptist minister. One man already
scared for his life and the other an idealist with a dream.
play needs to elide certain truths about the two to get to the heart of what it
struggles with – what these two men wanted had not been achieved by 1987 and
not even by 2022. The question of which approach was right is the dramatic
tension of history and of today – especially with the recent return of Fascism to
the United States and the return of the age-old question: is it okay to punch a
production – the Australian premiere of a thirty-five-year-old American play –
is simple and effective because of the two central performances by Christopher
Kirby and Dushan Philips.
as Malcolm X is magnetic. The play begins with both actors on stage, preparing
for the meeting, but the story is really that of Malcolm X – knowing that his
life is under threat and calling on King to continue their fight, not believing
he will ever be remembered. Kirby is an imposing figure, broad-shouldered and
tall, playing the passion of Malcolm X with both a simmer and a steam.
evokes the man with a kind of charming gravitas, never less than ready to
strike – with his quick wit and the feeling he has a speech ready to roll off
the tongue at any moment. King might be the quiet man of the two, but Philips’
presence – the way he holds himself as the Reverend, the way he intones the great
man’s arguments – is thoroughly compelling.
It is the
alchemy of the two actors together that makes you feel you’re there, witnessing
history that has never happened. The back and forth – both verbal and
occasionally physical – is captivating to watch.
direction is dramatically precise; the early moments of this production are fascinating,
even as the men just shave and dress and decide where best to place a table or
a chair. She’s guided her actors to bring these two men to life and to
explicate arguments too long held and never resolved.
It is the
two central performances that makes Red Stitch’s production an absolute
must-see, though. And Stetson’s text is strong; these are the arguments we need
to be having. It’s just a shame that a play from the 1980s explicating the
battles of the 1960s feels perfectly 2022 – as if Martin and Malcolm are
looking down from that Harlem window onto a Black Lives Matter protest.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Photos: Jodie Hutchinson