Goodman Studio Theatre

In his Imaginary Conversations, written in the 1820s, Walter Savage Landor improved on history: he created fictitious meetings between the likes of Seneca and Epictetus. In Insignificance, Terry Johnson assembled Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio in a New York hotel room, and made his play greater than the sum of its celebrities. When this literary-historical revisionism works, you may well feel that art has improved on life.

Few imagined connections make more sense than the one in Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting, brought movingly to life in Goodman Studio Theatre’s revival of the 1988 Chicago Theatre Company production. The play brings together two seminal–and martyred–African-American leaders of the civil-rights movement, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The time is Valentine’s Day 1965, but this is no lovefest. Malcolm X’s home has just been firebombed; Dr. King, making a rare visit to the north, is still haunted by the violence of Selma, Alabama. Malcolm X will be assassinated a week later by another Black Muslim; the killing of Dr. King is three years away. But in Stetson’s deeply engaging play, these young men–Malcolm X, 39, and Dr. King, 35–are very alive. So are the dynamic differences between them in strategy, style, and conscience, but these never obscure the bedrock decency and commitment that have pushed them in such different directions.

From the start, Stetson drives home those differences–of religion, temperament, regional origin, and philosophy. Spotlit on opposite sides of the stage, the revolutionary and the reformer speak eloquently, Malcolm X of how the “victims of democracy” must refuse to beg the white man for their civil rights, Dr. King of the power of love to heal hate.

Malcolm X (the “X” replaces his slave name, “Little,” and stands for the unknown possibilities to be realized through Elijah Muhammad) has asked Dr. King to visit him in his Harlem hotel room. It’s not clear why–perhaps just to see if he will come; perhaps because Malcolm X, now foreseeing the death he’s anticipated for 20 years, wants to learn which of them will control the future; or perhaps because shortly before his death Malcolm X did come to believe, like Dr. King, that not all whites were agents of Satan.

In sometimes heated exchanges–symbolized by the three bouts of arm wrestling that accompany their dialectic–the men listen and argue hard, their dueling points backed up by pungent examples from their own experience. Dr. King’s cause is not just an abstraction: he tells how his daughter, when King was in jail, made the connection that her father was there so that she and other black kids could go to the amusement park for whites in Atlanta. But Malcolm X may be closer to the people: he knows the life story of the prostitute they’ve both just seen outside the hotel.

Appropriately, the realistic radical takes the offensive, accusing the idealistic reverend of what Booker T. Washington was condemned for years before: preaching assimilation with the white foe, and being used by him to legitimize and prolong the exploitation of blacks. “When you dream, you die,” he warns. He prefers never to relax his vigilance against a pitiless enemy.

Malcolm X refuses to call it progress when a man plunges a knife nine inches into another’s back and pulls it out three; he wants the knife out altogether so that the healing can begin. By that he means self-healing–specifically separatism–not the charity of the oppressor. And unlike “Dr. Chicken Wing,” as he calls Dr. King, Malcolm X does not want to free all people, just his own people. He doesn’t want jobs from a white-owned economy; he wants blacks to own their own businesses. His anthem is not “We shall overcome” but “We shall come over!”

To Malcolm X, the answer is not Dr. King’s “capacity to endure,” to “prove hate wrong” through love. To Malcolm X, nonviolence only adds more black deaths to the intolerable total; integration is impossible to achieve and denies the enduring inequities of the “American nightmare.” Violence–what he calls “self- defense”–is essential to the separate evolution, or revolution, he advocates.

The pacifist preacher answers Malcolm X from his side of the gulf. To the charge that passive resistance is the coward’s way out, he proclaims what he learned from the freedom riders and civil-rights workers, that “you could take a stand by sitting down.” He knows it takes a courage like Gandhi’s to forgive rather than destroy; and he wants to free whites, too–of the racism that keeps them from achieving their humanity. Finally, if he is martyred, it will not be for nothing; he will have followed the example of his savior.

In their final arm-wrestling contest, as in the thrashing out of their separate ideologies, the men reach a draw. By now they’ve also found common ground. One is their children: Dr. King’s daughter gives a favorite doll to Malcolm X’s little girl, who’s just lost her home. They share a faith in the power of their own people. They share moments of humor, taking swipes at J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI stooges who’ve tapped the phones. And above all, they share an awareness of the prospect of sudden death, a fear that permeates The Meeting. This sense of imminent loss makes Malcolm X wonder how much they could have accomplished if they’d ever united. “Allah, protect the dreamer” is his prayer for his honorable adversary.

But however confident his arguments, Malcolm X is haunted by a dream he’s had that both he and Dr. King are dead, and that their deaths have made no difference. (It’s part of some heavy foreshadowing, the play’s only defect.) But a quarter of a century later, we sense how much of the future was lost with these men: the real encounter in The Meeting is between these enduring presences and us.

Harry J. Lennix and Percy Littleton achieve their own unity within divergence in Chuck Smith’s superbly orchestrated staging. These are no waxwork impersonations; Lennix and Littleton have done inside jobs on their great men. The physical parallels, however remarkable, matter less than the emotional grounding.

His basso profundo rumbling like the wrath of God, Littleton as Dr. King amply evokes King’s stentorian eloquence, which rolled from the Ebenezer Baptist Church to the Lincoln Memorial (where Malcolm X and Dr. King did meet briefly in 1963). He can also calm the thunder, giving “Dr. King” the confessional charm that could change him into “Martin.” In Lennix’s Malcolm X you see the hard-earned compassion that stoked the rage inside the revolutionary, and the intellect that pierced so much hypocrisy about racial brotherhood. Edward D. Richardson plays Malcolm X’s hulking bodyguard, Rashid, with sinister efficiency. (Interestingly, in the recent PBS telecast of The Meeting, Stetson revised the play to imply that Rashid, furious at Malcolm X’s diminishing militancy, played a part in his death.)

Tim Oien’s Harlem hotel room reveals a sweeping vista of lower Manhattan; his lighting subtly supports the emotional shifts. Corbiere T. Boynes’s aural design wraps the play in a collage of stirring recordings of the men’s speeches.