Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre kicked off the Summertime Season with a fully designed production of “The Meeting,” virtually broadcast beginning June 19. July 2 and 3 are the final viewing dates for this fascinating and compelling play that imagines what might have been if a dialogue had occurred between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In reality, the two civil rights leaders had only one fleeting, almost accidental encounter on March 26, 1964, at a Senate hearing about legislation aimed at ending segregation.
Written by Jeff Stetson and directed by Tim Rhoze, “The Meeting” takes viewers back to 1965, when a fictionalized, hour-long conversation between two of the most important people of modern times takes place at a hotel in Harlem. It is one week before the murder of Malcolm X and three years before the assassination of Dr. King.
The one-act play, written in 1986, features Keith Illidge as Malcolm X and Jelani Pitcher as Martin Luther King Jr. The actors are superb in their respective roles. They join forces for the second time at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, after having appeared together in “Topdog/Underdog” in 2018. Both men were nominated for Black Theater Alliance Awards for their portrayal of brothers who compete to be top dog in the darkly comic drama written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Mr. Rhoze.
Matthew Lolar has a powerful presence as Rashad, Malcolm X’s vigilant bodyguard. Although Mr. Lolar is not on stage during the conversation between the principal actors, viewers anticipate his return. His departure and reappearance convey the sense that time is limited for both Malcolm X and Dr. King.
At one point, arm-wrestling rather than conversation moves them closer to a meeting of the minds as they debate their differing approaches to ending racial injustice that continues to this day.
“The Meeting” is thought-provoking and emotional – with elements of humor, warmth and feelings of sadness for what could have been.
In an interview with the RoundTable, Mr. Illidge talked about his passion for theater and his portrayal of Malcolm X.
“It was an honor for Tim [Rhoze] to reach out to me to portray Malcolm X. … After reading the play and agreeing to play Malcolm X, I thought, ‘This is really the climate that we’re dealing with today.’ We had [the murder of] George Floyd. That opened my eyes to Malcolm even more, and even Martin.
“We all know the story of Martin, but the reason I bring up Malcolm is because I think he was viewed as trying to spew violence, and that wasn’t the case. … This piece opened my eyes to the humanness of Malcolm X. I’m reading his autobiography and I’ve been watching ‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’ a six-episode documentary on Netflix,” said Mr. Illidge.
The actor’s strong physical resemblance to his subject contributed to his authentic portrayal of an iconic figure who many historians now agree was misunderstood while he was alive.
“The humanness of Malcolm has come out for me because, in school – and no shade to Martin, because Martin is very much a prominent figure – but we didn’t get to experience very much of Malcolm. The only information I got about him was from being at home with my father, uncle or grandfather.
“I’m happy that this story can come out in today’s world. When the audience sees it, they can see that Malcolm and Martin weren’t much different. Their approaches might be different, but what they wanted overall was unity for all people.
“What Tim [Rhoze] was interested in was that this is just two men talking… I think when you get to see it … you’ll also see elements of, ‘Hey, I remember that from an interview he did,’ or ‘I can see that cadence there.’ That’s the beauty of the piece,” said Mr. Illidge.
Although decades have passed since the play was performed throughout Europe and the United States, “The Meeting” continues to resonate with audiences.
“I feel the piece is very timeless because it gives us that magic ‘what-if’…We actually get to see that these two men were very much alike,” said Mr. Illidge.
For the first time in nearly two years, there was an in-person opening night viewing of the play, for a limited number of fully vaccinated Fleetwood-Jourdain TheatrePremium Gold Card holders.
As he always does, Mr. Rhoze welcomed the audience on opening night with this message: “We want to give these artists an opportunity to perform in front of warm bodies, and that’s so important. … We need to bring people back to Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, slowly but surely.”
Mr. Rhoze has been the producing artistic director of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre since 2010.Those who wish to purchase tickets and view the play should visit Broadway On Demand. The viewing package is $24.99. Ticketholders can watch the production once during any of the above dates 12 a.m. to11:59 p.m.