By Emily Bright, Engage Minnesota
Also: Local Muslim Talks with Audience about His Experiences
When I arrive at the History Theater in downtown St. Paul, a school bus is parked in front of the door. It’s the perfect audience for Jeffrey Stetson’s play The Meeting, which imagines a meeting between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965 Harlem. Not that this is a children’s play, per se. But the discussion between two great leaders of the Civil Rights movement over the power of violence vs nonviolence definitely strikes a relevant note, and I’m glad people are having a chance to see it in school. Today’s show is set at 10 a.m. on a weekday, as most of the shows have been, and the audience has come entirely on school buses.
The setting is a Harlem hotel precisely 43 years ago today—Valentine’s Day, 1965. Set on the evening of the bombing of Malcolm X’s home and a week before he was assassinated, Malcolm X takes center stage through nearly all the show. Dr. King has accepted a visit to Harlem, and the two men spend their visit in an impassioned debate over, as the program states, whether revolutions are “won by hands clenched into fists or clasped in prayer.”
Who Will Win?
I find myself rooting for each man in turn. Malcolm X, performed by Penumbra Theater’s Terry E. Bellamy, is passionately connected to the struggles of his people in Harlem and other cities. He places himself on the side of the “living dead,” on the side of the hopeless young men and women on the streets whose rage he wants to direct somewhere useful. Dr. King, played by Darien Johnson, appears a bit out-of-place outside of the south, and his insistence in the power of love to overcome all hatred—Malcolm X rather disdainfully reads a piece of one of his speeches—appears stubborn in the face of Malcolm’s passion.
The script itself focuses heavily on Malcolm X, on the expanse of his hope for his suffering people. “If you really were for unity,” he moans of the nonviolent movement, “you’d be singing ‘we shall come over’” and stay over until no more black women have reason to be afraid. Later, he argues that white people gave King’s movement “concessions” and King an award because the other option in black leadership was Malcolm himself, and he knew he scared authority. (Which led me to think about what I’d learned of Malcolm X in school, before I read his memoirs in college. I knew he was violent, urban, and Muslim, in that order of importance. One of the sometimes unsettling points the play makes.)
Bellamy’s delivery of Malcolm X subtle and stirring, demonstrating the range of his emotions. Johnson’s Dr. King has a composed thoughtfulness to his demeanor, but he delivers most of his lines in a shout that moves between anger and sadness does little else to show the depth of his character. Indeed, most of what we are able to feel for his character is pity that he is so constantly on the defensive. Twice, moved with anger, the two arm-wrestle over the chess table, desperate to find a winner some way between their two opposing sides. Each man wins once—they are tied.
The play takes a pleasant turn toward the end when Dr. King, preparing to leave after a frustrating meeting, mentions that the brown paper bag he’d brought and left was a gift. It is a doll, which draws laughter from the audience. The gift is from Martin’s daughter to Malcolm’s daughter. “It’s her favorite doll,” Martin explains; his daughter saw the bombing of Malcolm’s house on TV and, worried that all their things had been destroyed, sent the doll to Malcolm’s daughter to comfort her. The mood changes entirely. Suddenly, with one moment of compassion, they are no longer two men with irreconcilable approaches to justice. They are family men, deeply committed to helping their people each in the way they seem right. They have given and will continue to give all that they have to the cause, and both are mightily aware that their lives will likely end early.
Play Never Pits Christian vs. Muslim
As opposed as the two men seem to be throughout the meeting, the play never becomes Christian vs. Muslim. That they are both men of faith is one of their commonalities. Indeed, at one point, Dr. King says with exasperation, “I would have thought your trip to Mecca would have expanded your compassion.” Reconciled at the end, they recite lines of prayer together—after they’d arm-wrestled once again and, didactically, tied. “Imagine what these hands could do if they pushed in the same direction,” Dr. King says. Their opposed approaches aside, they are working for the same goals of unity and opportunity for all black people in America.
The play ends its run Friday, February 15, and I would recommend keeping an eye out for it if another production comes around.
Local Muslim Talks with Audience about His Experiences
I would be remiss to end my review here, though, without mentioning the 20-minute discussion afterward. Each day of the performance, different Minnesotan Muslims have volunteered to tell a five-minute version of their story and take questions from the audience.
Today’s speaker was a local pharmacist, Tamim Saidi, who came as a refugee from Afghanistan seventeen years ago. The student audience shuffled and come slowly back to the auditorium after their short intermission, but Tamim (also a contributor to EngageMN.com) held the students’ attention well. Upbeat, he elicited responses and shows of hands. Perhaps a dozen students in the audience had come as immigrants themselves; two dozen raised their hands to show that their parents had come as immigrants; and half the hands in the room went up when he got to grandparents. When it came time for questions, there was, to my surprise, a ready show of hands. Most of the questions focused on his coming-to-America experience rather than on Islam. They wanted to know what was the hardest thing, what he missed, how he felt coming without his parents, and whether he got teased here in high school. “That,” said a Somali girl behind me as we left, “was more interesting than the play.”
–Emily Bright is completing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Minnesota. She also works as the Creative Writing Department’s Scribe for Human Rights, researching and writing on such topics as Darfur and the Save Yar Campaign.