Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met just once, for only one minute, at a press conference at the U. S. Senate on March 28, 1964, but playwright Jeff Stetson has done well to imagine a longer meeting at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Both men were well aware of the other's philosophy on how to overcome injustice, and better the lot of African-Americans, and had mutual respect for each other, though with sharply-different approaches. The execution:
Playwright Stetson permits each protagonist to voice with equanimity and occasional passion his views, and has sought to keep the balance even. But his inner muse has betrayed him into creating a far more vivid character in Malcolm X. Malcolm X has invited the Reverend King to visit him in a suite in the Hotel Theresa, so Malcolm X has the advantage of home court. And he has been graced by Stetson with a sarcastic sense-of-humor.
Perhaps more importantly, Malcom X is portrayed by Mirron Willis, tall, with an imposing stage presence, a rich, sardonic laugh, and a keen sense of theatricality. With reddish hair and a flamboyant manner, he conveys a man sure of himself, confidently in charge. It is a masterful performance. This is the third play I've seen Willis in, and this part seems made to his measure.
Jason E. Carmichael portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and captures his dedication and at times his voice echoes the cadence of Dr. King. Carmichael is strong, and articulate, but the character seems curiously defensive. This is created by the script, not the actor, and is partially due to the differing approaches. Dr. King's non-violent path to integration is less colorful than the revolutionary credo of the Muslim Malcolm X: "By any means necessary."
As the play opens, we see Malcolm X at prayer, on his prayer mat, and meet the third character in the play, Rashad, bodyguard to Malcolm X, ably portrayed by Derrick Brent II, who creates an interesting character in his brief time on stage. The set, designed by Jason Lont, is handsome, tiered, with an outdoor balcony - it works well. The direction by Shirley Whitmore is spirited and appropriate.
Stetson has made the debate between the two icons conversational - no mean feat - and the dialogue rings true, not forced. We are carried along by the torrent of words, with both sides seemingly correct in their perceptions of the problems, though differing dramatically in their proposed solutions. This is no dry-as-dust academic debate, but rather a struggle between two men who have labored in the trenches themselves. That both men were assassinated, Malcolm X on February 21, 1965 and Dr. King on April 4, 1968, facts well-known to an average audience, adds to the power of the confrontation. In the play, both men are aware of this possibility.
The script falters a bit at its conclusion, as it has several endings, perhaps too many, and a rapprochement based on both men having daughters seems forced, and so pat that it might have served in a sitcom - it trivializes what is otherwise a powerful and articulate presentation of the strongly-held views of two significant leaders who have devoted their lives to a cause.
While imagined rather than historically accurate, The Meeting is a fascinating study of what might have been, filled with intelligence, wit, and strong performances by gifted actors.
The Meeting continues through February 15, from Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information or ticketing, call 713-520-0055 or contact www.EnsembleHouston.com.