Theatre review: The Meeting

An imagining of a meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, exploring the opposing views of these two great Black leaders

Red Stitch’s The Meeting opens with an encounter between Billie Holiday and Malcolm X. Malcolm X – a black power revolutionary in a safe house because of the fire bombing of his home during the height of the civil rights movement – recalls Billie Holiday coming up to him and singing: ‘You don’t know what love is until you know the meaning of the blues.’

It’s a charged moment for a play that has big themes: What does it mean to love your neighbour? How do you love your neighbour when your neighbour is your enemy, or even your oppressor? And how do you keep on loving when you know there is a specific meaning, a charged political meaning, to your culture’s experience of the blues? 

The play is a classic of 1980s American theatre by celebrated black playwright Jeff Stetson, programmed by Melbourne’s small but influential theatre at a moment where its themes are enjoying a cultural resurgence. Under Tanya Gerstle’s direction, Peter Mumford’s set design is minimal and the colour and movement is provided by the play’s titular meeting: when Christian Baptist civil rights leader Martin Luther King meet with Muslim activist Malcolm X to discuss their competing approaches to healing America’s racial divide. 

The play is carried along not only by the depth of the themes but how profoundly the actors inhabit their characters. Christopher Kirby as Malcom X and Dushan Philips as Martin Luther King both bring a real commitment to their roles, as does Akhilesh Jain with the more minor comic role of Malcolm X’s driver. Their task is aided by a script that often contrasts the elevated work of leading a historic struggle with the domestic loss it brings on a smaller, more human scale. 

Both Malcolm X and King were assassinated by white supremacists and both had an awareness that they might die in the service of their cause. This is encapsulated in King’s line that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land, and although he might not make it there with the members of the movement, he would be there in spirit to guide them. The play’s best work succeeds in contrasting how each of the two men adapt to this mission, and the contrast between their tactics. 

In a Judeo-Christian culture like Australia’s, King’s tactics of Christian love are always going to be seen as more compelling than Malcolm X’s, which justify the use of political violence in world view that is focused on the Islamic values of protecting honour and avenging shame. But even bearing in mind the likely values of The Meeting’s audience, I would argue that the play itself, and even, I would further venture, the historical record, celebrate King’s ethos –which draws not only on Christian compassion but Ghandi’s ethic of non-violence – over Malcolm X’s argument that the pursuit of black power justifies sometimes violent means. 

The play puts this poetically in Malcom X’s line to King: ‘You want black people to be able to buy coffee, I want them to be able to sell it.’ But a poetic twist to do with the leaders’ children, drawn from fact, makes the most compelling argument for whether the Nation of Islam or the Southern Baptist Church have the most lasting means of creating progress for black minorities.

Although King is shown as the winning tactician, Malcolm X is portrayed as having the most moving connection to the cause. Christopher Kirby does the hard work of inhabiting a difficult story, sometimes to the point of near tears, and it works.

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The play ultimately persuades that if some people are driven to pursue political goals with more expedience than principle, it may just be because their knowledge of love is informed by the meaning of the blues. 

The Meeting by Jeff Stetson
Red Stitch Actors Theatre

Director: Tanya Gerstle
Set & Costume: Peter Mumford
Lighting Design: Richard Vabre
Sound Design: Justin Gardam
Cast: Christopher Kirby, Dushan Philips, Akhilesh Jain
Tickets: $15-$57

The Meeting will be performed until 23 October 2022

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin