Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Abominable Showman, February 20, 2014

What if Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had sat down and had it out? 
Black Theatre Workshop imagines what could have been, in The Meeting …
by Richard Burnett 

Their meeting is famous: March 26, 1964, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shook hands in front of the Washington press corps outside the U.S. Senate Caucus Room on Capitol Hill.

Malcolm – who once called King “Rev. Dr. Chicken-wing” – stepped out of the crowd, blocked Dr. King’s path, extended his hand and smiled.

“Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King said, shaking Malcolm X’s hand.

That meeting almost 50 years ago lasted only a minute. 

But what if it had lasted an hour?

Christian Paul (King)
Playwright Jeff Stetson answers that question in his ever-popular 1987 one-act play The Meeting, and which Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop (BTW) has been touring in schools, libraries and community centres in and around Montreal throughout February. The Meeting also opens a limited-engagement run at the Segal Centre Studio from February 22 to March 1.

“I’ve wanted to do this play pretty much since I became the artistic director at BTW,” says Quincy Armorer, who also directs this production. “I used to run our former Youthworks training program and I used excerpts from this play in that program. I’ve always wanted to do the full production. I’ve always been drawn to its premise because I can’t actually believe these two men never met except for that one photo op in 1964. It surprised me. So what would have happened if they’d had a chance to really talk?”

In Stetson’s play, King and Malcolm meet in Harlem on the day that Malcolm’s home is fire-bombed. Their meeting is confrontational, since Malcolm knows the white establishment prefers to deal with Dr King since the alternative (read: Malcolm X) is less palatable. As The New York Times noted of the 1987 PBS production of The Meeting in its review, “The division between the Southern Baptist minister who became America’s pre-eminent exponent of nonviolent protest and the street-bred exponent of black self-defence, by violence where necessary, comes across sharply. Even when Mr. Stetson puts slogans into his characters’ mouths (“'No progress can come from violence'”), their confrontation has considerable force.”

Personally, I suspect both men would have discovered they had a lot more in common than most people – perhaps even themselves – realized: Both were sons of Baptist ministers and, of course, both leaders would be assassinated at the age 39. Their philosophies were different, yet near the end of his life, Malcolm X was becoming more like King, and King was becoming more like Malcolm.

I also think they would have butted heads. After all, Malcolm X was as Queer as a Three Dollar Bill, and Dr. King fired his 1963 March on Washington deputy director Bayard Rustin because Bayard was Gay.

Lindsay Owen Pierre (Malcolm X)
Now I know there are plenty of folks out there who will tell me to shut up already (although I have long said I  am a graduate of the Malcolm X school of rhetoric). But Malcolm’s bisexuality has been an open secret for years, at least since the publication of author Bruce Perry’s acclaimed 1991 biography Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America

Sure, Malcolm got married and had children. But he’d seen the black establishment crucify Rustin. Homophobic congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. demanded Dr. King drop Rustin from the March on Washington or he’d tell the press that King and Rustin were lovers (they weren’t). 

So King – who was taught about non-violent protest by Rustin at the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott – fired Rustin (read more about that by clicking here).

Eventually civil rights elder statesman A. Philip Randolph agreed to organize the march only if Rustin could work with him, and other civil rights leaders agreed because they wanted Randolph. 

Had they properly met, surely Dr. King and Malcolm X would have been briefed on each other’s personal histories. King would have known that Malcolm was bisexual, and Malcolm would have known what King did to Rustin.

Still I believe Malcolm and Dr. King would have had deep respect for one another, and would have come to embrace the gay civil rights movement later in life.

Needless to say, portraying these two towering figures onstage comes with great responsibility. After all, we are talking about Dr King and Malcolm X. 

“What we did in rehearsal was try not to imitate them, but rather find the truth of them,” Armorer says. “The actors also bring some of themselves to their roles as well. That also took some of the pressure off of ourselves, though you still want to have some of Martin’s cadence and rhythm.

For Armorer, this play “is a gift for a company like us. I am hoping not just the black community, but the wider community, will make the effort to come out to see this imaginative and dramatic work because it educates as well as entertains.”

Black Theatre Workshop presents The Meeting at the Segal Centre Studio from February 22 – March 1. To purchase tickets, call the Segal Centre box office at 514-739-7944. Click here for the official  Black Theatre Workshop website.

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