Although they eventually collaborated on projects designed to inspire optimism and hope, Attallah Shabazz remembers her first meeting with Yolanda King as a time fraught with apprehension.
Shabazz, the daughter of assassinated Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, and King, the daughter of slain civil rights leader and pacifist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., approached the introduction in 1979 with more than some misgivings. Their legendary fathers had often been portrayed as ideological adversaries--one aggressively preaching segregation, the other racial harmony--and both women feared the tension might be passed along.
"I went in with much hesitation," said Shabazz, an actor/writer/lecturer from New York who has lived in Los Angeles for the last two years. "I didn't know if she'd think ill of me and be worried about the way I thought of her, too. The press had always put our parents at opposite ends, and I thought there might be bad feelings because of that."
There weren't. Shabazz and King, who met when asked to be subjects of an Ebony magazine article, liked each other immediately and found a common ground in their activist leanings and in their positive outlooks toward the future of blacks in America. They soon joined for a lecture tour and in 1980 co-wrote "Stepping Into Tommorrow," a play Shabazz described as "an advertisement of hope for all people."
Both the play and the lectures are rooted in their belief that "people progress" comes from self-esteem, and the ability to make the right choices in life style.
"Stepping Into Tomorrow" will be performed Saturday in the Santa Ana City Hall Annex Auditorium as a benefit for the Orange County Black Actors Theatre. The seven-person cast includes Taurean Blacque, a former star of "Hill Street Blues," and Shabazz. The production will be at the Los Angeles Theatre Center Oct. 8-18.
The play presents a handful of characters who gather for a 10-year high school reunion and discuss their lives. They talk about peer pressure, teen pregnancy, drugs, suicide and dropping out, contrasted with calls for self-discipline, education and personal respect.
"It's a work about individual strength. . . . We want to get on the other side of the bruise," Shabazz said. "We hope it is socially uplifting and helps give direction."
It does that. But it has also been dismissed as preachy and simplistic by some critics who say the problems are solved too neatly, ultimately giving audiences--especially the young students it targets--an unrealistic picture.
Shabazz conceded that "Stepping Into Tomorrow" may be superficial, but she is also adamant in its defense. "It's not a real cerebral piece of writing, we know that, but we're trying to make a quiet sort of statement; one that says things can work out all right if you try."
It would be interesting to know what Shabazz's father would have thought of it. Malcolm X, the firebrand Black Muslim leader and black nationalist who was shot at the age of 39 at a 1965 Harlem rally, is not often associated with such a passively idealistic approach. Malcolm X (nee Malcolm Little) may be best known for advocating extremism, even violence, among blacks facing racist threats from the white establishment.
But Shabazz said her father would embrace the play if he were alive. She stressed that his political views and rhetoric had changed during the last five years of his life, actually reflecting King's nonviolent philosophy.
At the risk of sounding like an apologist for the man credited with inspiring the radical Black Panthers in the 1960s, Shabazz pointed out that her father even wrote King "a letter of support" when he was imprisoned in Selma, Ala., in 1965 for demonstrating for a federal voting-rights law.
"He had evolved, even mellowed," she said. "He wasn't such a despiser (of whites). . . . He became more open-minded and practical. He knew the black movement had to take a less violent direction, had (to move in the direction) King was going."
Her other recollections are also contrary to most perceptions. Although only a child (Shabazz declined to give her age or say how old she was when her father died, although a 1983 Times article notes she was 6 when he was assassinated), Shabazz said she remembers him as "loving, humorous, gentle and shy, not the dangerous man seen by many."
She also believes the young Malcolm X's use of incendiary language may have been more of a tool to create black unity than an actual call for bloodletting.
"You have to understand that blacks didn't have much of an identity then, and one of the ways (the more radical) leaders got them to feel good about themselves was to attack the whites.
"By feeling angry about someone else, there was the thought that you could feel better about yourself. . . . I'm not saying that was right, but it explains things somewhat."
"Stepping Into Tomorrow" takes the opposite of that attitude. The play's positive imagery and values are meant to be universal and, Shabazz stressed, to transcend any racial boundaries.
In fact, Shabazz is a bit annoyed when asked if it offers a special message for black youths. "No way! This is just about people. We've played to all-white prep schools all over the country, and it hits different people in many powerful ways."
But what about the status of blacks in the 1980s? Does her optimism hold up?
Shabazz hesitated, then said: "I'm happy with much of the civil rights progress. We've moved forward in many areas, but before you have more equal rights--better housing, more equal economic conditions--you have to change people's attitudes, their biases. We've still got a way to go there.
"You salute what has come so far, but you always press for more."
"Stepping Into Tomorrow" by Attallah Shabazz and Yolanda King will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Santa Ana City Hall Annex Auditorium, 23 Civic Center Drive (corner of Ross Street and Santa Ana Boulevard), Santa Ana. Tickets: $8-$25. (714) 667-7090.