Enter a dreamer and a revolutionary with a plea for equality still missing today
By Sebastian Purcell
The Meeting is an outstanding theatre play depicting a fictional dialogue between American Civil Rights Activists, Dr Martin Luther King Jr (Dushan Phillips) and Malcom X (Christopher Kirby) in February 1965. Playwright Jeff Stetson brings events that occurred nearly 60 years ago alive and transforms them into contemporary issues that are at the forefront of today’s political discourse; he play was conceived nearly 35 years ago yet is strikingly relevant now.
The Meeting explores Dr King Jr’s and Malcom X’s opposing views of how to bring about societal change and equality to African Americans, one dedicated to non-violent means and peaceful demonstrations and the other advocating an advance to freedom through revolution with the ends justifying the means, even if that includes violence.
Peter Mumford (set and costume design) and Richard Vabre (lighting design) immediately place you into what feels like the Audubon Ballroom, New York, where Malcom X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, and later transitioning to the balcony in which MLK Jr was assassinated three years later. The staging, while sparse, cleverly uses a large wooden table as the centrepiece depicting the meeting, the balcony and even competing ideals of the two activists. The lighting and sound (Justin Gardam) works to transport the audience to what feels more like a memory, using almost sepia tones as if to say the movement, and those who fought for its ideals, are beginning to fade like an old photograph with the passage of time.
Director Tanya Gerstle has excelled in all elements here, firstly through casting. Not only do Phillips and Kirby go toe to toe for 60 minutes in both a verbal and physical contest, but Kirby’s towering and athletic physic adds to Malcom X’s heightened sense of willingness to use force to create change. It is a wonderfully paced play and the addition of Akkhilesh Jain as Malcom X’s body guard offers levity in what is a tense and thought provoking story. Jain had the audience laughing out loud with his well-timed quips, and serves as a physical representation of the pawns which Malcom X is fighting to protect in his game of chess.
Phillips and Kirby as Dr King Jr and Malcom X respectively are captivating. Their verbal sparing is delivered with conviction and clarity. The energy from both is cleverly aligned to their characters; Phillips is calm, stoic, patient, non threatening, aligned to that of his beliefs in civil protest, while Kirby is more rash, forceful in delivery and bold and physical in his performance.
Some of the clear messages that arise from The Meeting include: that non-violence does not equal non-action; that we all have to put in to create a better, more equal society; and that while the systems and laws may change, if those who wield power and hold privilege don’t change then the application of those laws and systems will continue to disproportionately affect those they were intended to uplift.
The Meeting is a timely reminder that even when our philosophies differ, pushing in the same direction will support achieving equality for all, much sooner and with far less resistance.
Promotional photo by Robert Blackburn & Work Art Life Studios