The Meeting

RSAT-The-Meeting-photo-by-Jodie-HutchinsonJeff Stetson’s The Meeting uses the occasion of a fictional encounter between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X to examine their famously different philosophies and approaches to the civil rights struggle.

Three and a half decades after it was written, and at a time when pseudo-historical storytelling is more popular than ever, this play is a shining example of the very best form of ‘what if’ history.

It is at once an entertaining fiction, a riveting drama and a powerful evocation of real events in a movement that has long outlived its protagonists. Most of all, it pays a deep respect to the people it imagines.

The Red Stitch cast do immense credit to the text. Christopher Kirby’s commanding stage presence and deft grasp of the nuances in the piece allows his Malcolm X to be both an imposing warrior figure and a comrade-in-arms, a respected and vilified leader and a touchingly loving father.

The part is wonderfully written, weaving uncompromising philosophical and political standpoints with personal vulnerability and tangible anger. Kirby explores and gives life to every facet of his character, the rough and the smooth.

Dushan Philips gives an equally well-rounded performance as Dr King. The great man’s wit and wisdom are enlivened by his cadence and in his calm and collected intellectual sparring with Kirby he summons an indefinable air of the stubbornly peaceful and costly resistance that won King such admiration. There is a nobility and profound sense of duty in the way Stetson has written King that Philips expertly captures.

I also must mention the Australian debut performance of Akhilesh Jain as X’s bodyguard Rashad, which is a welcome injection of humour and personal loyalty that shines a light around some of the darker subject matter.

There are some delightful ironies that underscore the common aims of both leaders and their movements. At one point King wins a contest of physical strength against his towering opponent while at another, X has a dream of his own, albeit a violent one.

Director Tanya Gerstle has staged moments like this cleverly, allowing their symbolism to quietly hint at deeper questions lurking beneath the surface humour without labouring the point. The result is a complex, coherent and engrossing hour of theatre.

Peter Mumford’s set is starkly beautiful, with runnels of white paint bleeding down the walls in a breathtaking negative of the centuries of racial violence that background the moment of The Meeting. Another moment of understated metaphor that raises the stakes for the characters in the room.

The untimely and violent deaths of both men loom large over The Meeting as does the knowledge, more than half a century later, that the significant gains made by the civil rights movement need more than ever to be actively safeguarded and built upon.

I applaud Red Stitch for producing this persistently relevant piece at a moment when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act are under sustained political siege in the United States, to say nothing of the illegitimate judicial assault on reproductive rights and the freedoms of sexual minorities. History is littered with examples of hard-won victories that were all too easily reversed. We cannot afford to forget.

In its own imaginative way, The Meeting plays a role in this ongoing venture for justice. In giving the strategies and legacies of these men a space in which to challenge one another; to answer each the charges of the other and in so doing expose the resonance of their common goals, it finds a unity in their historical differences and provides encouragement to those who have picked up the mantle. To quote X, “the contest is more important than the debate”, and the contest is still very much in progress.

The Meeting
Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, East St Kilda
Performance: Saturday 1 October 2022
Season continues to 23 October 2022
Information and Bookings:

Image: Dushan Philips as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Christopher Kirby as Malcolm X in The Meeting – photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Review: Daniel Townsend