One of the central and most telling images running through Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" is a photograph that captures a rare encounter between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Initially, one of the film's characters hawks copies of that photo on the streets; later, after the tragic incident at the pizzeria, he tacks the same image up on a charred wall that has previously sported portraits of Italian American celebrities. Even the film's controversial postscript -- back-to-back quotes by Malcolm and King on the subject of violence vs. passive resistance as tools for social change -- refers back to those two very different leaders frozen forever in black and white.
By alluding to, rather than dwelling on, the relationship between these men, Lee gives his audience space to ask its own questions, fill in the gaps. In his 1987 play "The Meeting," Jeff Stetson takes a much more direct approach to the topic. Playing through Oct. 27 at the Source Theatre, this intense one-acter is one of those historical "what if?" plays that depicts a fictional encounter between Malcolm and King.
Set in a Harlem hotel room in 1965, shortly before Malcolm's assassination, "The Meeting" tries to present these giants of the civil rights movement as both ideological deities and frustrated family men. Yet due to the uneven quality of the production, it is difficult to determine just how successful Stetson has been in fleshing out these portraits. While there are genuine moments of fire and revelation, the overall effect is one of staginess and predictability.
The play begins with a glimpse of a sleeping Malcolm (Ersky Freeman), his lanky body crumpled over a wooden bench. Rashad (Bus Howard), his burly bodyguard, plays the harmonica upstage. The room they inhabit is spare and African-inspired -- the walls are hung with panels of patterned fabrics, and the largest piece of furniture is a drumlike table covered with stretched hide and sporting a carved chess set. Malcolm shudders violently; another nightmare has awakened him. He picks up the phone to call his wife ("Betty, kiss my little girls for me") and, after bidding her goodbye, adds: "If the FBI's still listening, I'm hungry. Deliver some Chinese food -- and hold the pork."
We quickly discover that Malcolm's house has just been bombed. He's riddled with fear and guilt. And he's itching to go out on his balcony, but stymied by numerous enemies, among them a contingent of his fellow Black Muslims. Endlessly pacing, talking in stop-and-start bursts to the implacable Rashad, Malcolm is portrayed as a nervous, bitter powder keg of a man.
Into this tense environment strides the stately King (Doug Brown), dapper in his hat and overcoat and carrying a paper sack (you know at once that it's a significant prop). King is here, it appears, at Malcolm's request, but why the invitation was extended is a mystery. After being checked out by the hostile bodyguard, he and Malcolm begin a tiresome bout of verbal sparring (Malcolm: "Your idea of unity is sitting around a campfire, with crosses burning, and singing 'We Shall Overcome' "). As they debate their ideological differences, Malcolm's edginess intensifies. King alternates between studied calm and unbridled rage. Intermittently, they arm-wrestle to let off steam.
Though Stetson lays out the leaders' political philosophies most eloquently, we never really feel that they are having a conversation. That is, until he allows a more personal element -- remember the paper sack? -- to enter the proceedings, and suddenly the men are just that -- men. Abandoning the rants and diatribes, they step out onto the balcony for a thoughtful discussion about family, public vs. private life and dreams past and present. When King departs, their animosity has been replaced with mutual admiration.
Director Jennifer Nelson must be lauded for her conventional but crystal-clear staging of the play, but it will be hard to evaluate her full intention until the two leads feel completely secure with the script. At this point, Brown's is by far the more developed portrayal; his King is both poised and unhinged, oratorically polished and blustery. Look into his eyes, watch him move, and you sense a soul both weighted down and set free by his vision. Freeman's Malcolm, however, comes off as immature, at times almost ridiculous. Though he certainly looks the part, it's hard to believe that this jumpy, hotheaded guy is either deeply devout or truly committed to his revolution. In order for "The Meeting" to work, Malcolm and Martin must enrage and inspire us equally.
The Meeting, by Jeff Stetson. Directed by Jennifer Nelson. Lighting by Jennifer Garrett, set by Thomas J. Donahue, costumes by Luba McFadden. With Doug Brown, Ersky Freeman, Bus Howard. At the Source Theatre through Oct. 27.