Crying in the Wilderness Productions
Warehouse Theatre, Croydon
Very briefly following a press conference when the Senate was debating the Civil Rights Bill in March 1964, Malcolm X met Martin Luther King, just for long enough for them to be photographed together.
Stetson's play imagines another meeting. He places it a year later on Valentine's Day in the tense time when Malcolm X was facing death threats, just after the burning of his home by arsonists and less than a week before his assassination. Malcolm X has invited King responding to a secret meeting in the Harlem hotel where he is staying. Malcolm's bodyguard is doubtful that he'll come and when he does is eager to double check that he carries no weapons.
It is not just the meeting that is not strictly historical. In a reference to King's "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, delivered only the day before his assassination on the balcony of a Memphis hotel in 1968, Malcolm calls King out onto the balcony of the hotel in Harlem where the meeting theoretically takes place, to share his vision.
Moments like this obviously have added impact for those who know the facts of these men's lives but this is a play about ideas, that presents the opposing views of these two great Black leaders, one seeing an advance to freedom through revolutionary active struggle, using violence if necessary, the other dedicated to non-violent means and peaceful demonstration.
Malcolm X is played by Jeffery Kissoon who is much older than the real man, killed before his fortieth birthday, but he is an actor who could play the telephone directory with power and passion and delivers a performance of fire and feeling. It has a strength that at first makes George Eggay's Martin Luther King seem light-weight but this is the private pastor not the charismatic preacher and, as they come into contention, he brings a similar passion to his playing.
This is not a play that analyses and argues political strategies in detail. It presents these men's ideas in broad terms, drawing sometimes from their public speeches for some of their point making and offering a series of arm-wresting bouts as an analogy for their ideological confrontation.
While the arguments for passive and active action in trying to defend liberties or bring political change are still with us, this play is more a celebration of both men's contributions. While King argues that non-violent demonstrations have brought some legislative change, he acknowledges the contribution of those who threatened revolutionary action and Malcolm suggests that without that threat, concessions would not have been made.
A discussion over a game of chess between Malcolm X and his bodyguard Rashad, whose commitment to and concern for his leader comes clearly through Anthony Taylor's performance, provides an excellent image for social responsibility. While Rashad, the better player in this hierarchic game of strategy, berates his boss for not risking his pawns, Malcolm speaks of solidarity and that we are all pawns. A doll, a present from King's daughter to Malcolm's daughter, seems to stand for a hopeful future in a development that risks becoming sentimental, something that the fine playing of this company avoids.
Paul Anthony Morris's production, presented on a set by Victoria Johnstone that is covered in newsprint to remind us of the importance of the media in promoting these men's ideas and establishing them as enduring icons, is not afraid to give these actors their head, making up in emotion what is perhaps missing in ideological detail with actors who suggest the charisma of the real people. Its effect is to emphasize the common ground between the protagonists rather than explore their differences.
Though Malcolm X argued for Black Nationalism and spoke in an Oxford Union debate in favour of extremism after he parted from the Nation of Islam and began to make wider contacts abroad and in the U.S.A. perhaps the pair would have drawn closer together had he survived. One can only conjecture on what difference that might have made.
In Black History Month this production is a timely reminder of the contribution both made. I also found it moving and effective theatre.
At Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, until 1st November 2009.
All performances are followed by bonus events which include jazz and blues, spoken word or "Mary Seacole" by Karline Grace, or discussion with director cast and crew. Details on the theatre website www.warehousetheatre.co.uk
Reviewer: Howard Loxton