It is a February night in Harlem, 1965; Malcolm X has invited Dr. King to his hotel room for a private meeting. The date chosen for the play is put into historical context through the exposition, setting the tone for a tense discussion between two strong, determined men.
At the open of the play, neither Malcolm X, nor his body guard Rashad, know whether Dr. King will show or not. Then there's a solid knocking on the door.
Ka'ramuu Kush and Phillip C Dixon, as Malcolm X and Rashad, respectively, react to this moment in complete synchronicity. They freeze, stopping their conversation mid word, and exchange glances -- quickly and with a sense of both surprise and hesitation. It is a well-directed, well-performed look under the public veneer of these men, and the first of several such moments that really succeed in this production.
Matthew C. Galbreath as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rounds out the cast with a strong performance. Galbreath personifies King as a man fully immersed in both his cause and approach. In this performance, King is earthy and grounded, leaving his lofty speeches for public occasions, and he shows vulnerability and weakness. Galbreath delivers the resonance of the King we know from recordings, but tempers it to a conversational level.
Kush counters Galbreath expertly. His Malcolm X has the rhythm, cadence and determined edge we have heard, but he reveals charm and personal charisma in this more intimate setting. This is not to say there is a lack of idealism or faith in either man's words; neither is willing to step back from a position or assertion with ease as they seem to share a stubborn pride.
Watching the back-and-forth tension -- the hesitation to give an inch fighting against the desire to engage in an honest dialogue -- was completely engrossing. Kush's Malcolm X is lithe and quick, taking verbal jabs and trying to push Galbreath's King, and he succeeds at times.
Galbreath's King is, in turn, sly and tactical, deflecting most of the jabs and getting in a few of his own. The arm wrestling matches between the two men are among several of the more surprisingly humorous moments, and they work quite well within the story's premise and action.
The script makes ample use of analogy and metaphor. Though perhaps a bit overused, it works well, providing access to the men through the familiar. Many in the audience are only familiar with these men through history and not personal memory, myself included, and Stetson is wise to root these characters with traits and passions we recognize.
The new space at the Emerson Performance Center on the Harris-Stowe State University campus suits the company well and the technical aspects were to their usual high standards. The period furniture, from the hotel couch to the slightly worn table with chipped edges to the floral decal on the trash can, felt spot on; the use of light and sound cues complemented the story and provided a sense of place as well as time; and the costumes seemed accurate down to the glasses and hats. More importantly, there's a sense of intimacy in the space that served the production well.
The play is compelling, and the intellectual sparring quite invigorating; but it is when the men finally find some common ground that the performance really finds emotional center. In Stetson's script, both men are not only deeply faithful and committed to their cause; they are also equally, and lovingly, committed to their families. It is through a small act, a gift from one man's daughter to the other's, that the two men are able to finally connect.
The fact that both are aware they may be killed for their cause, both had already been targeted, solidifies the unusual bond they forge during this imagined meeting. There is a profound humanity to the last ten or fifteen minutes of this show, something deeply personal and emotional, that really affected and moved me. Yes, we understand that the meeting is a fiction, but as an audience member I wanted to believe that it was possible.
The story I saw, through both the script and the sensitive portrayals of these two incredibly influential men, was one of two men with much in common. Underneath their public personas and very real differences, which must be considered, each cared deeply, equally, about their families, their cause, and achieving lasting results for the efforts and sacrifices of so many people.
"The Meeting" runs through January 26, 2014. For reservations or more information call (314) 534-3810 or visit theblackrep.org.