reviewed by Matt Ritchey
Brown Sugar Rehab’s production of Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting was nominated for three NAACP Theater Awards for their run at Theatre 68. And experiencing the special performance of the show at the Zephyr Theatre on May 19th, it’s easy to see why.
The Meeting is about the time in 1965 when Malcolm X (Bechir Sylvan) invites Dr. King (Ethan Henry) to his apartment in Harlem to talk. What really occurred is unknown, but Stetson’s play does an amazing job of showing how these two ideologically different men may have connected. They are both aware of their current safety concerns and Malcolm wants to instill some of his methods into Dr. King, thinking he may carry on the movement if he is taken out. The same is true of Dr. King wanting to instill his peaceful protests into Malcolm’s ideology. It’s a highly intelligent struggle between two greats, physicalized on stage by arm wrestling bouts between deep conversations which, with the benefit of hindsight, are frighteningly true predictions.
Legendary actor and director Bill Cobbs guides the story beautifully as the actors completely own the stage. The contrasting philosophies of the two men are well represented in not only costume (Dr. King in revered black and Malcolm in his classic grey) but in spot-on vocal performance, from Sylvan’s pointed city vibe to Henry’s Southern drawl. It’s impossible to say where (or if) the passion of the actors and the passion of the characters differed.
The best part about these conversations is that in the end, both ideas are “right.” The play doesn’t push for one ideology over the other but shows how they are both true, both work, and that perhaps, if the tragedies of the two men’s assassinations hadn’t occurred, their movements could have coalesced and we could be living in a much different world right now.
Which, of course, is a primary reason for mounting this play right now. As much as we would like to think that we’ve changed and learned since the 1960s, the rise of evidence in race-related police brutality and hate crimes seems to prove the opposite. If we’re repeating our history, who are our modern Kings and Malcolm’s? In a talk-back after the show, Producer/Malcolm actor Sylvan noted that we don’t have any leaders willing to die for their beliefs today. We live in a world of hashtags and armchair justice, with a comment on the internet enough to make us feel we’ve made a difference. One could argue that there are a few voices rising above the din for justice and change, Ocasia-Cruz and Harris come to mind, but have we yet found that intersection of peaceful protest and action?
I sincerely hope this production and its message finds itself remounted soon.
Photo (above) by Doren Sorell Photography Bechir Sylvain, Justin Chu Cary and Ethan Henry