There are many good reasons for this play, The Meeting, to be staged at the Market Theatre's Barney Simon in a month celebrated as Black History Month in the US, where the playwright Jeff Stetson hails from. It deals with two of iconic American figures, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
It's about an imagined meeting and the playwright, who spoke at our particular viewing following that night's performance (Wed 9 Feb), explained the idea for the play emerged when he had to teach young students about these two gigantic men. What could be better than a play? And it has since toured the world to many different countries – now South Africa, where James Ngcobo, artistic director of The Market, has made it his first directing project of the year.
It's a fascinating tale as the two men meet in a room in Harlem with Dr King calling on Malcolm following a call from the firebrand. And initially, they simply lock horns. How could they not? The one wants to do things quietly, without violence, demanding rights for his people, while the other has lost patience and will grab justice it seems any way he can. Stetson described them as Ali and Frazier. "Malcolm was short, quick jabs while King bided his time to deliver the knockout blow."
He also notes that Malcolm was the one that scared those in power, hence the one who is less visibly honoured today. The white establishment wanted to give the African American minority justice on their terms, and preferred King's methods; the oppressor being asked by a pleading oppressed – no violence.
And this is what this play is about, sketching a picture of their different points of view on fighting for their people and then some background on their lives, the way they lived, away from their wives and children, the common ground between them.
Both died shortly after this imagined meeting and with that hanging in the air, it also adds resonance and weight to the words.
It's a quiet moment with the two men mostly sitting around the table talking about unity. In the background is a third party, Malcolm's bodyguard, which throws yet another voice into the mix.
To celebrate African American playwrights also brings home truths to local audiences, which will strengthen a worldwide solidarity for the oppressed wherever and whoever they are.
Ngcobo has put much thought into the play as he sets it in the context of this country as well as past and present times. He mentions similarities like Mandela and Robert Sobukwe for example, so there's an idea for someone to expand on. It's also not a far cry from those times to Black Lives Matter and the resonance for black South Africans will be overwhelming. Yet everyone will be gripped by these visionary voices and what they were battling.
To celebrate African American playwrights also brings home truths to local audiences, which will strengthen a worldwide solidarity for the oppressed wherever and whoever they are – something that today seems in the ascendancy rather than decline. That's why the voices, the minds, the memories of people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are so important. And Ngcobo knows that, especially in a country and on a stage where some of these stories have never been told.
Casting cleverly with Aubrey Poo as Martin and Capetonian Brendon Daniels (who has a remarkable resemblance to Malcolm) playing the two giants, these young bulls of theatre get down and dirty, playing together for the first time, and tell this particular story with both grace and grit.
As Malcolm, Daniels has more dramatics to dazzle with while Poo has the King accent, which could have engulfed his performance if he didn't own it. Young Litha Bam slips into this political staging smoothly to complete this storytelling cycle.
From start to finish it is a compelling story as these two men who are described as part of the continuum of struggle show their cards and slowly unleash and display their particular power to each other. For those familiar with their stories, it is a reminder of how little things change and how far so many of the world's citizens still have to come, while others will have the joy to encounter these two icons who knew how to speak to their power and fight the good fight – in different ways.
Having wanted to direct this play for many years, it is in the timing, says James Ngcobo. It had to be perfect. Look at what is happening around you – in our country and theirs. This is the perfect time.
- The Meeting runs until February 26 at Joburg's Market Theatre's Barney Simon.