When Jeff Stetson wrote his play The Meeting in 1983, the Reagan Administration was on its way to dismantling the Commission on Civil Rights, debates on affirmative action were underway, and the advances of the 1960s were in jeopardy. So, many of the questions raised in The Meeting regarding the disparate directions of the Civil Rights Movement endorsed by two of its leading figures had some urgency; the nation -- Blacks and Whites alike -- were divided in their allegiances.
Stetson depicts an imagined meeting in a Harlem hotel room between Malcolm X [Kalonji Gilchrist] and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [Carlos Russell] just days before a fateful rally in February 1965 at the nearby Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm was mowed down by some 21 bullets, and three years before King's assassination in Memphis. -- Now playing at the Pure Artistry Literary Cafe, the play balances these two giants' points of view as they argue hawkish-aggression and non-violent civil disobedience, with occasional editorializing by Malcolm's bodyguard Rashad [Rod Richardson]. Though we now know all too well that both men would soon die, the prophetic irony of their frequently stated willingness to give up their lives to the cause can't be ignored. And the recognition that the paths each has chosen have bound them together is summed up in the line: "If they kill one of us, they can't let the other live, since he will be turned into a martyr."
Written as a literal and figurative chess game as well as a test of physical strength, we see these two men at a human level out of the glare of media attention and at a distance from their iconic status; and it is to the credit of co-directors Ronald McCall and Janice Dennis that they have not encouraged the actors to impersonate these men, but rather to reflect their attitudes and positions.
Nonetheless, any depiction of such instantly recognizable figures must inject personal charisma, forceful speech, and complete confidence in their aims. -- Stetson's text frequently reminds us of specific events and accomplishments, reputations, and significant obstacles each one poses to the other in accomplishing similar goals, so whatever predispositions audience members might have regarding either of these icons, certain expectations must be addressed. -- And there must be some tension in their meeting beyond a concern for personal safety, and a greater purpose that merely to talk...perhaps a determination of a new direction for the movement through achieving a victory for one side rather than a detente.
There are a few moments in the production at Pure Artistry that get to the heart of the matter, but all too frequently, the tentative delivery of dialogue and deliberately slow pace lacked the passion that the script's words implied. And these are important issues that need to be brought to the attention of today's audiences, many of whom can only recite a litany of names and quotable quotes without much thoughtful consideration of their significance.
Perhaps the production will find its feet during the run of the show. With a greater confidence in flexing their muscular ideals and philosophies as well as in arm wrestling, Stetson's script would be better served, and we would be more attentive to their musing: "Just think if we had joined hands and pushed in the same direction, what we could have accomplished."