You can watch the news and you can see Malcolm and Martin in the people they interview," says a young black woman during a discussion following the opening of Black Theatre Troupe's new production, The Meeting.
The play could not have opened at a more apt-or a more painful-time. Last Thursday was the second night of rioting in Los Angeles, and the weight of what was happening there hung over the evening. In the play, which uses a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to explore the philosophical differences between the two men, a passing reference to Los Angeles caused a palpable shudder to pass through the audience.
Written by Jeff Stetson and the recipient of the NAACP Image Award in 1987, The Meeting is set in February 1965, the day Malcolm X's home was bombed, perhaps by Nation of Islam members unsympathetic to his increasingly conciliatory attitude toward whites. It is a week before he is to meet his fate at the Avalon Ballroom in Manhattan. He has invited Dr. King to meet with him because, as he tells his bodyguard, it is time. In the 55 minutes that follow, Malcolm will circle King like a cat playing with a mouse, sneering at his nonviolence and accusing him of being a pawn for the white establishment. As one of the playgoers pointed out later, Malcolm X comes across as much the stronger figure in the exchange, perhaps because of a first-rate performance by Mel Morris, perhaps because he is activeÏboth physically moving around the room and intellectually raising points for King to answer-while King remains essentially passive. The differences between the two men are the differences between the dreamer and the revolutionary, between the lamb and the lion, between the man who wanted his people to integrate the coffee shop and the man who wanted his people to own it.
Those are the differences the young woman was referring to when she pointed out that the people interviewed about the riots on televison sounded like either Martin or Malcolm. And even though the two men embrace at the end of the play-to spontaneous heartfelt applause from the audience-it was clear in the discussion that followed that the night went to Malcolm. And that the rioters in Los Angeles might be exemplifying his by any means necessary."
In recent years, Malcolm X's life and untimely death have exerted a fascination upon blacks akin to that of John Kennedy's for whites. In any shopping center these days, you can see young men wearing black caps with white Xs-they were in evidence at The Meeting. And Spike Lee has been filming a life of the Black Muslim leader that has already drawn criticism from all sides, and that Meeting director Charles St. Clair predicted would become the most controversial film of the decade.
Following the performance, St. Clair and his actors gathered in front of the stage informally at the card tables and metal folding chairs the financially strapped Black Theatre Troupe furnishes at its modest home on Portland Street. The conversation that followed revealed Malcolm X's growing importance to a people who have suffered increased economic hardship under presidents Bush and Reagan, and who have just been shown that justice is more equal for some than others.
I was appalled," said St. Clair of the Rodney King verdict, and there were few if any of either color in the group who would disagree with him.
On the faculty at ASU West, St. Clair had his actors, Mel Morris and Otis Evans, do research for their roles. Both men, while they've had experience acting, earn their livings in other ways: Evans as a bailiff in Superior Court and Morris as a mainframe computer operator. St. Clair is reluctant to believe the official explanation that Malcolm X was killed by his own people, a sentiment that struck a responsive chord among some of his listeners. To them, Malcolm is something like forbidden fruit, Martin the honored but irrelevant prophet. As one young man, wearing a round African cap, pointed out, Some factions in this country want us to learn more about Martin Luther King than Malcolm X. Malcolm stood for us building our own, and that idea in America is a very scary idea."
The talk ranged across a variety of topics: The differences between the North and the South for blacks. Black people's responsibility to stay in the ghetto and become role models for the young. How, if the government cuts funding to education, it invests in crime. Black adults' responsibility to teach their children about Malcolm and Martin messages that go beyond baseball caps sported like gang colors.
I felt bad when all the children left," said St. Clair, referring to a handful of youngsters who'd walked out of the show when it turned out to be a conversation about civil rights tactics.
Overall, it was a thought-provoking and sometimes troubling evening.
The Rodney King verdict, one woman pointed out, undercuts black youth. She said she works in the juvenile court with Otis Evans, and will be at a loss if a young charge should ask her, Why should I stay out of trouble when this kind of thing can happen?"
Much of what was said was painful for a white listener. The young woman from juvenile court described how she arrived at work the morning after the riots began and felt alienated from white co-workers who were talking and laughing. When they said Good morning" to her, she thought, Yeah, I guess it is a good morning if you're white."
More disturbing was an expression of sympathy for the rioters by another young woman. I feel a sense of energy," she said, referring to the events in Los Angeles. I think great things are going to come of this." Apparently of separatist sympathies, she described Christmas and Easter as having nothing to do with us," and later added, again speaking of the riots, I feel a sense of renewal. Even though we're losing people, that's what happens when change comes about... . If what we're doing now is going to prevent a policeman from beating a brother in Tupelo, Mississippi, then it's worth it." Sometimes the most painful truths were couched in the simplest terms. Listening to a woman talk about how much blacks have had to endure, Mel Morris said, almost in an aside, They treat us like shit."
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And Joel Coleman, artistic director of Black Theatre Troupe, said how anguished he'd been the night the riots broke out, and how he went to bed overwhelmed with sadness, thinking, I don't like it here anymore."
People nodded, as if no progress has been made since 1965, when Watts exploded and Malcolm X was murdered. The Meeting raises questions that will never go away. Unfortunately for us all, the hopeful embrace with which it ends is contradicted by what has been happening on the streets. The Meeting continues through Friday, May 15, at Black Theatre Troupe Playhouse, 333 East Portland. For further information, call 258-8128 or see THEATRE listing in Thrills.
IT'S NOT EASY (BEING WHITE) BUT MOSE ALL... v5-06-92