Chicago Theatre Company

The Meeting has the kind of premise that can’t even work during Black History Month: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King spend an evening together on Valentine’s Day 1965 (one week before Malcolm X’s assassination) reflecting on their lives and discussing their divergent philosophies. Of course speeches alone of Malcolm X and King could make interesting theater. Unfortunately, playwright Jeff Stetson is content to give us the same old sound bites, remixed into a sedentary, untheatrical, highly reverential one-act play that at once deifies and trivializes these two great men.

From time to time, King’s and Malcolm X’s words transcend the play, and it’s hard not to be stirred by the sight of them among us once again. It is even possible, for a few seconds, to forget you are watching a play, and believe instead you are watching a film clip, an effect that in itself can be quite moving. Some members of the mostly black audience were so caught up by the dialogue (or the material struck such a chord) that they shouted responses back to the stage–sometimes before the actor finished his line.

As often as not, however, the play flounders around in its own preposterous setup. The very idea that Malcolm X would arrange a meeting with Martin Luther King, a man he considered a virtual collaborator with the white oppressors, is hard to swallow. True, Malcolm returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 calmer and more accepting of King’s ways, and willing to acknowledge that not all white men were “devils.” But Malcolm was also a very complicated and deeply suspicious man. Hardly the sort of person to warm up to a political rival in a single evening. (It took months and months for Alex Haley to gain Malcolm X’s trust, when he was helping Malcolm write his autobiography.)

Stetson would have us believe that not only would Malcolm invite King to meet him for a friendly chat (at, of all times, the evening of the day his house was firebombed, when Malcolm X knew his days were numbered), but that King would come, without hesitation or bodyguards. It’s too much to expect for Stetson to violate the godlike status of both King and Malcolm X by having them act the way any other two strangers would act when meeting for the first time, with more than a little hesitation, defensiveness, and discomfort. Instead, in the span of a little more than an hour Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would trade deep secrets of their souls, arm wrestle three times, and part as all but the best of friends (they even give each other a bear hug).

Despite the air of unreality that hangs so oppressively over the story, the Chicago Theatre Company’s production moves along at quite a nice pace and even manages to entertain a little along the way. Director Chuck Smith and his fine cast deserve a lot of credit for this remarkable sleight of hand (turning leaden script into gold, or at least brass). Smith begins the show with a powerful 15-minute curtain raiser made up of choice quotations from the speeches of Malcolm X and King. (If only the play itself had been as good as the curtain raiser.) This montage performs the double duty of refreshing our memories of King and Malcolm X, and of introducing the actors who will play them in The Meeting (giving us that much more time to accept the two actors as the two slain civil rights leaders).

Harry J. Lennix’s uncanny impersonation of Malcolm X also went a long way toward redeeming the play. He has Malcolm X’s cocky, quickwitted, sarcastic manner down cold. Luckily, Lennix also has the gift of being able to make the most ridiculous lines sound real. “We are all pawns,” he says at one point, somehow convincing us that he is the first person ever to have thought of that. Less satisfying was Gregory Alan-Williams’s rather subdued version of Martin Luther King. Alan-Williams has captured King’s speaking style perfectly, but lacks something of the spirit that animated those words, the anger and religious conviction that made King more than just another kindly, righteous preacher man. Still, Alan-Williams is miles ahead of his material, and he and Lennix work very well together.

But despite the competent cast and direction, in the end, The Meeting accomplishes little considering what great men Malcolm X and Martin Luther King truly were, and how great our loss was when they were killed. The Meeting would have been so much better if Stetson had tried to come up with a compelling reason for King to visit Malcolm X. Instead we are left with a false-feeling, blandly didactic docudrama that trivializes its own implied question (“What would happen if Malcolm X and Martin Luther King spent an evening together?”) with the answer “They’d arm wrestle.”