The Meeting

By on 22 February, 2012 in Art, City Living, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 2 Comments

 

The cast, from left: Kalonji Gilchrist as Malcolm X, Derek Lovett as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ron Rico Davis as Malcolm’s bodyguard.

It was a dark and stormy night. We had acquired some tickets to a play, but knew almost nothing about it. We hadn’t seen any advertising for the play. We had never been to the venue. We only knew that it was raining a lot, and that we were headed to see a 1987 play about an imaginary meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

As it turns out, the Pure Artistry Literary Cafe put on one heck of a production of “The Meeting” by Jeff Stetson (no relation). We couldn’t see a sign on the Cafe (142 W. Jeff Davis Ave), which looks like it may have been a church at one point. But, again, it was pouring rain, so we may have just missed it as we ducked into the building.

The theater was small but cozy and the rain’s patter on the roof blended nicely with the 1960s soul music playing before the production began. The no-frills setting for the audience (folding chairs, nobody staffing the concessions table) meshed perfectly with the stage setting, a spare hotel room in New York City just a week before Malcolm was assassinated in the nearby Audubon Ballroom. That setting suddenly becomes background when Kalonji Gilchrist strides onto the stage as Malcolm.

It would not be overstating it to say that Gilchrist brings a magnetic presence to the stage and an impressive likeness of Malcolm X, both physically and in verbal delivery. A few moments of expository dialogue pass between Malcolm and his bodyguard (Ron Rico Davis) before the arrival (at Malcolm’s invitation) of Dr. King (Derek Lovett).

Thus is established a great blank slate, whereby two of history’s greatest freedom fighters are allowed to interact, putting forward very different visions of social change. The meeting is laden with conversation about race, obviously, but also about overall visions of political reform and revolution. The audience is immersed in the irony that both men are to be martyred, but Stetson’s script doesn’t belabor this point. Martin and Malcolm know in the play (as they did in real life) that their lives are regularly in jeopardy. Death looms for them, but doesn’t impair their devotion to struggle.

Gilchrist crackles with Malcolm’s militant energy and, after a hesitating start, Lovett grows to match him stride for stride as their jousting banter escalates. Lovett radiates King’s calm strength and deep reservoir of scholarly meditation while managing to convey real passion on the importance of non-violence.

Stetson’s script is well done, not just as a debate about political theory and grassroots strategies, but also in conveying the tension of a nation simmering with violence. The nods to historical facts from both men’s lives are fairly minimal (Malcolm mentions speaking in Selma while King was in jail there), but the bulk of the hour-long conversation is the debate between “singing” (King) and “swinging” (Malcolm).

The play, although written in the 1980s about men that died in the 1960s, still feels current and exceptionally important. The play begins with Malcolm awakening from a nightmare (a nice counterpoint to King’s dream) and he later relates the content to King: He dreamed that their struggle would be forgotten by future generations. As it turns out, Malcolm’s nightmare may be coming true.

The content was also particularly rich because we had just finished reading the new Manning Marable biography of Malcolm X, a vitally important contribution to the body of knowledge that exists about the man — and a resource that Stetson didn’t have when he was writing the script. Marable’s book is an instant classic for all audiences, but contains several mentions of Malcolm’s trips to Alabama that highlight the differences between his temple life in Boston and King’s church life in the South.

It will never be outdated to discuss the relationship between anger and love, nor to consider whether the United States (as a nation) has a conscience — or even a memory. Lovett and Gilchrist animate these important conversations, pacing around the single-room stage, letting the important ideas hang in the air, drenching the audience like the rain soaking the ground around the theater.

We left enriched, not knowing a lot more about the Pure Artistry Literary Cafe, but hoping their future productions are as good as “The Meeting.” The program to the play says they do workshops on creative writing and acting, spoken word, and standup comedy. Check the website for more information. Although they’re still deciding whether to offer more shows of “The Meeting,” we were told that if there’s enough demand, the venue will bring it back for another run. Even if not, we hope that Pure Artistry will continue to bring small scale productions like “The Meeting” to Montgomery audiences. We need art that is as provocative as it is beautiful.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. linda Perry says:

    I saw the great performance of The Meeting on Saturday night. I love it. Kalonji Gilchrist is a great actor. All three actors were very good.

  2. Roger Lewis says:

    I am a principal of an elementary school and would like to recreate “The Meeting” with two of my 8th graders for Black History Month – Where can I order a copy of the script?

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