10/9/2020 THE MEETING Merely Players
ARM-WRESTLING WITH IDEOLOGY
It’s 1965 in Harlem. The height of the Civil Rights struggle in America. Opposing ideologies were espoused by charismatic leaders Malcolm X (“By Any Means Necessary”) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (nonviolence and political activism). The two leaders (officially) met face-to-face only once (March 26, 1964 in Washington D.C.). Jeff Stetson’s 1987 play, The Meeting, imagines a fictional encounter at a Harlem hotel, mere days after Malcolm’s home was fire-bombed, mere days before his eventual assassination.
Merely Players’ Zoom reading is the third production of this play I’ve seen, and it is, by far, the finest. My two prior encounters were in Pennsylvania small theatres with limited resources (including personnel) and neither went deeper than that “barely off book” recitation monotony that can plague some non-professional companies. Here, though, the actors were stellar, imbuing the two icons with humanity that was undeniable, with personalities that transcended reverence with humor and even pique. The arguments were clearly stated, passionately felt, and the “debate winner” left ambiguous and open for discussion. The play itself makes the (seemingly) clumsy attempt at metaphor by having the men actually arm-wrestle at several junctures in the meeting; the clumsiness, however was only in the play’s construction – as played here, the matches seemed a natural ploy, a character-driven choice for the men to sit back, marshal their arguments, and engage in some friendly physical sparring.
And it is the actors who made this Zoom experience so memorable. D. Norris is Malcolm X, looking very much like the real man, letting the threats to his family and his schism with the Nation of Islam lead him to a recognition of the merits of Dr. King’s philosophy, if not a full acceptance of them. Mr. Norris very neatly tempers his persistent firebrand core with the concern of a father and the clear vision of a leader.
Darrell Grant is Dr. King, a man weary of the obstinance of his opponents, but willing to accept the worst possible treatment to reach his “mountaintop.” He recognizes a kindred spirit in Malcolm, but steadfastly refuses to succumb to “the dark side,” even when provoked, even if necessary. Mr. Grant allows Dr. King to display very real moments of anger and impatience, allows him to display all the oratorical skills that being a Southern Baptist preacher required of him.
Also in the cast is Cameron Smith as Rashad, Malcolm’s bodyguard, skeptical of the need for this meeting (which, incidentally, was initiated by Malcolm in response to the fire-bombing of his home), pleading with him to not fulfill his upcoming speaking engagement at the Audubon Ballroom (a security nightmare, which, in hindsight, we know to be the end of Malcolm’s life).
Rashad aside (and he disappears from view soon after Dr. King’s entrance), this is essentially a two-character play, so this script lends itself well to Zoom, and director Celeste Campbell has made some interesting, usually effective choices in “blocking” it. All three actors are filmed with the same background, so Aristotle's “Unity of Place” remains intact, even if they are absent from each other’s screen. When Rashad is “off screen,” the two leaders rarely remain still, circling each other like alpha wolves engaging in battle. Yes, they “circle” where the other WOULD be, but Ms. Campbell has ensured their focus, their eye-lines remain where the other would be if they were sharing the same space. It is a stylized approach that works extremely well, and I could appreciate the effort that was made to make it seem seamless. For the record, the staging of the arm-wrestling scenes was especially effective, given the limitations of the Zoom platform.
The Meeting was a one-night-only live stream, but I understand it will be recorded for On-Demand viewing. (When that happens, I will add a link with this column.) Still, Friday’s presentation was a dynamic encounter between two iconic historical figures, a reminder that they were real men with real failings that tempered their successes. Merely Players’ presentation of this play was a reminder of the power of words and arguments, especially when delivered by leaders (and actors) of charisma, charm, and integrity.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #MerelyPlayers #TheMeeting)