Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Meeting: Introduction to a Powerful Play by Jeff Stetson

Saturday evening we went to see a powerful play by the Renegade Theater, modestly titled The Meeting, a play by  Jeff Stetson. The title is simple, its impact anything but.

For those unfamiliar the play is an imaginary meeting between two of the most significant civil rights leaders of the 50s and 60s, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The two men purportedly did meet once, but this dialogue between the men is purely fictitious.

The juxtaposition of these two characters is a most excellent device for enabling audiences to see the similarities and contrasts between these two men, a device I've seen used elsewhere. Peter Kreeft's book Between Heaven and Hell came immediately to mind. In that book Kreeft explores the ideas of JFK, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley by means of a lengthy dialogue shortly after their deaths on the same day in 1963.

I myself have used a variation of this device by creating fictional interviews between me and deceased heroes like Honore Balzac, Swiss artist Paul Klee and John S. Hall, the blind poet of Ritchie County.

This was Daniel Oyinloye's directorial debut I believe, and the outcomes were superb. The all-black cast consisted of Carl Crawford as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Williams as Malcolm X and Gabe Mayfield as Rashid, Malcolm's bodygurd.

A special feature of the performance was Act 2 in which the director and cast took seats facing the audience and fielded questions written by the audience during intermission. The questions probed the men's feelings and motivations not only about the play and its characters but also about the status of race relations today.

The set.
The set was simple. It's an apartment. There is a window to the left, a balcony overlooking the city at the center rear, a couch, a door on the right, and a table with two chairs centrally placed. On the table we see a chess board with the pieces set up for a game. During the course of the play we'll see the table used for arm wrestling, a battle of strength, and the psychological game symbolized by the chess set.

The play opens with a radio playing headlines from the period as Malcolm lies stretched on the couch. There is an explosion and Rashid comes running in, gun in hand.

This intro sets up the time of the play. It is the week before Malcolm X's assassination, the evening of the day his house had been bombed. Malcolm is aware that he is a marked man. Rashid insists he stay away from the window lest he be taken out by a sniper.

Julian Williams (L) as Malolm X, Carl Crawford as Martin Luther King Jr.
Early lines include these.

"You'd be amazed how much one can take when you're focused."


"They just won't swallow the truth, even when it's good for you."

The writing is crisp and perfectly paced so that as tension builds, humor diffuses it. For example, when Malcolm beats Martin in arm wrestling, King later said he let him win on purpose. So they rematch and King wins. Yet later Malcolm concedes that he allowed that to happen for King's sake. At the end they do a true mano a mano arm strength contest and have a draw.

These little instances serve as interludes while simultaneously being metaphors for their differing methods of dealing with the problem of race in America.

One major takeaway was seeing how the backgrounds of the two men helped shape their approaches to the primary issue they wrestled with. King was from the rural Jim Crow South, Malcolm X from the big city ghettos of the North. These differing cultures enabled King to see progress when the "white only" and "black only" drinking fountains were abolished.

Martin could say that non-violence helped achieve this, but Malcolm  could point to the violent death of Emmett Till as a variable as well. In short, the gains may have been real but they were also costly.

* * * *
During the Q&A period in the second part our questions dealt with both the play and matters of race and identity. Here are 10 things I found noteworthy.

1. Malcolm X and Dr. King were both dreamers and revolutionaries in their own ways.

2. The set itself was intentionally grey, not black and white.

3. When asked "What has changed since the 60s?" There have been changes in the South, but racism has not changed. Julian Williams stated that the manifestations of racism have changed for the worse. "We have our segregation here."

4. Carl Crawford, who is the Human Rights Officer in Duluth, made a very interesting comment at this point. This play gives families an opportunity to discuss tricky topics with our families. "Think about how many unimportant conversations you have during the holidays," he said. He encouraged us to go deeper in our conversations this year.

5. There was a question related to power structures that keep people down. Learning how to navigate the acceptance of unjust power structures while dismantling them is needed. "You can navigate and challenge the system without accepting it. We have to challenge the status quo."

6. UWS grad Julian Williams was asked "What side are you on and which is better?" (regarding Malcolm and Martin.) Williams, who majored in Legal Studies and Criminal Justice, replied, "Malcolm was not violent. He never used violence. America is violent. People are expected to be non-violent. Both men wanted freedom."

7. Gabriel Mayfield, who played Malcolm's bodyguard Rashid,  was asked, "How often are you afraid of being accepted in this world?" Gabe replied that he did have fear when young. With more knowledge now he's changed. He responds by showing kindness and being positive.

8. Director Oyinloye was asked, "What's it like working with an all black cast?" He replied that this play "put me in a very dark place" but that "working on this play got me out of it."

9. I was impressed how transparent and vulnerable the men were during this Q&A period.

10. One of the questions led to this response by Crawford: "I am a black man 24/7 and I love it. We can all get along when you love my child the way you love your child." That was a great statement.

* * * *

The Meeting has some truly important insights for all of us. If you missed the performances at Zeitgeist Teatro Zuccone, there will be two more performances this week that are open to the public:
tomorrow evening, October 30 at Denfeld High School, 7:30 p.m. and November 6 at 7:30 in the Kirby Ballroom at UMD.

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