"The Meeting" is what if theater, as in what if Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X sat down in a cozy hotel room in 1965 and discussed the civil rights struggle.
As directed by Adleane Hunter for the Orange County Black Actors Theatre as part of its observance of Black History Month, Jeff Stetson's play offers intriguing possibilities: Could these men have joined in a common strategy for the movement? Could they have gotten along as leaders? They were, after all, men with very different perspectives.
A disciple of Thoreau, Gandhi and Christ, King used nonviolent civil disobedience in his efforts to win hearts and to influence minds. Malcolm X, meanwhile, spoke of aggression and the need to meet fist with fist, gunshot with gunshot. Turn the other cheek? Like hell, man.
Unfortunately, Stetson lets fantasy go too far, creating an idealized vision that smacks of contrivance: Malcolm X (Bingwa) discovers that King (Curtis Thomas) has brought his daughter a doll to replace the one she lost when their home was firebombed, and suddenly, all heat between the men dissipates. Malcolm X finds himself marveling at what he and King could do as "a team." The play ends with a handclasp of understanding (harking back to an arm-wrestling match earlier) that goes beyond respect to approach near-mawkish affection.
Director Hunter can be criticized for taking this happy ending and pumping it up to made-for-television dimensions but, in her defense, it does seem in line with Stetson's fable-like writing. It's obvious that we are supposed to leave the theater feeling good about these two legends; "The Meeting," in the end, is less about black history than it is about black pride.
Stetson sees Malcolm X as more than a charismatic leader, passionate social thinker, uncompromising avenger and former prisoner. He paints him with humanistic strokes, as a man who also had a sense of humor and who harbored a great love of family.
In the production's best performance, Bingwa shares Stetson's vision and presents a wise and, though temperamental, relatively reasonable firebrand.
When, for instance, his fuming bodyguard (Tahlib McMicheaux) sarcastically berates him for meeting King, Malcolm X takes it all in stride.
Because King is more familiar to most of us, Thomas has a bigger challenge in making the role his own. And--unlike Bingwa, who resembles Malcolm X somewhat--Thomas looks nothing like King. Still, Thomas is able to evoke the character, focusing on King's strength and famous patience. King is the immovable object to Malcolm X's irresistible force, and Thomas communicates this resolve.
An Orange County Black Actors Theatre production of Jeff Stetson's drama. Directed by Adleane Hunter. With Bingwa, Curtis Thomas and Tahlib McMicheaux. Set and lighting by Arnold Brumbly. Sound by George Hammond. Costumes by Wendell Carmichael. Plays at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, 931 N. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Tickets: $12-$15. (714) 667-7090.