Pleasance Theatre, Islington, and touring
This revival was adapted from a production the director Chuck Mikes staged at the University of Richmond in the US in 2008 and its British leading actors travelled there this autumn to begin rehearsals. Like the Crying in the Wilderness production a year ago, this imagined meeting between the great black leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X makes an appropriate choice for Black History Month.
Stetson places it just after the arson attack on Malcolm X's house and in the week before his assassination. It takes place on the seventh floor of a hotel building in Harlem where, unknown to his supporters, the revolutionary activist has invited the non-violent religious leader to meet him. As Malcolm nervously waits for his arrival Cornell S John's performance emphasises the private man concerned for his family rather than the firebrand, but we also glimpse the charisma that gains him followers and the devotion of his aide and bodyguard Rashad (Lovelace Akpojaro), who clearly disapproves of this meeting.
Raschad wants to subject the well-fed King, who has climbed the backstairs to this height, to a body check and by stealth succeeds, is rigorously protective. He will take no risks but after his dismissal from the room, the play becomes a dialogue revealing the characters of the two men, juxtaposing their different methods of achieving what is in fact a common aim, though Malcolm points up what he says is a difference in their view of freedom: while King wants to desegregate the buses and get Blacks jobs, he wants them to own the bus company and be the bosses. King claims a wider view: while Malcolm wants to free the Blacks, he wants to free America.
Ray Shell's Martin Luther King has captured the Reverend's pulpit and platform manner and that matches a production in which they often harangue each other or directly address the audience. It is not all hectoring but the personal moments are more telling; when the man shows through there are even touches of humour. Shell had me near tears as he spoke of his daughter's present for Malcolm X's child and the conflict between the two is encapsulated in both the chess game between them or the arm wrestling in which they compete.
Early in the play Rashid stops Malcolm X from going anywhere near the window for fear of gunmen and, later, when Malcolm takes King out onto the balcony, this should reek of risk; both men fully understand the situation. Strangely it produces little sense of frisson, perhaps because the position is to similar to the way in which other speeches have been addressed to the audience, but if that moment lacks theatricality, there is a huge emotional impact when King declares after their final arm-wresting bout, "Just think what we could have encompassed if we had joined hands and pushed in the same direction.'
The production is billed as 'a theatrical event'. And that begins in the foyer when police with truncheons and riot shields patrol the audience, and a heated discussion develops between some about whether police are more likely to stop and questions blacks before the audience if brusquely ordered to switch off its phones and enter the theatre at the trot.
The atmosphere continues into the auditorium with voices singing 'We shall overcome' in the foyer and as seats are taken. From balconies either side of the house King and Malcolm X alternately deliver excerpts from campaign speeches until the lights go down and we are ready to begin the play.
So far so good, a dramatic way of creating the background - it is already more than forty years since both men were assassinated? There must be many for whom this is relatively unknown history, though those who lived through it will never forget it - but the atmosphere created is now abandoned. On the night I saw it there was a long dark silence followed by a montage of newsreel clips, interviews and hard to read rolling text giving more background. This was not the place to insert a video documentary, even a better made one than this, and to compound things no sooner had the actors taken a curtain call then there was a follow up documentary projected about inequality in Britain.
I could not agree more with the sentiments contained in these videos but they are an intrusion that interferes with the dramatic experience. By all means run them on monitors in the foyer or even before and after the performance in the theatre but separated from the play itself, though how to fit that with the enacted prologue would be difficult.
Runs at Pleasance Theatre until 10th October; then New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth 14th/15th October; The Drum, Birmingham 18th-20th October; returning to Pleasance 26h-30th October; Nuffield Theatre, Southampton 2nd/3rd November; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 4th/5th November; Bernie Grant Arts Centre, London 6th November 2010.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton