On the shoulders of giants
The dramatic and much-anticipated meeting between two of the most famous men of the 1960s occurred on March 26, 1964, and lasted only long enough for a few photographs to be taken. But what if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who had by then returned from his hajj and taken the name Malik El-Shabazz, had actually been able to sit down with each other and discuss their ideas, experiences and philosophies?
The Meeting, a play by Jeff Stetson, imagines such a meeting and offers some answers to that question. A new production featuring three of Sacramento’s finest young actors will give local theatergoers a chance to find out.
The first sight of James Ellison III in a black, narrow-lapelled suit and wearing the glasses that made Malcolm X famous is enough to give chills to anyone who remembers that turbulent time.
“It gave me chills, too, when I looked in a mirror,” Ellison said. While Denzel Washington’s famous portrayal in Spike Lee’s X is the hallmark, Ellison’s bearing has just a trace of the bookish autodidact that readers know from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ellison has done outstanding work in roles as diverse as Lincoln in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, Styles in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and as one of the eponymous swordsmen in The Three Musketeers. He’ll be joined onstage by equally experienced and talented actors Romann Hodge as King and Brandon Rubin as Rashad, Malcolm X’s bodyguard.
“Malcolm X is one of the most influential people in my life,” said Ellison. “In doing research, I learned more about his nonviolent approach to change,” an approach that is more closely associated with King these days, but was also a hallmark of Malcolm X’s work. “This play introduces that side of him to people who don’t know about it.”
And far from being intimidated by taking on the role of Dr. King, “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, how refreshing,’” said Hodge. He’s already delivered solid performances in a number of roles, including two in August Wilson plays: Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson and Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II. Hodge described portraying King as “a nice challenge.”
“People have heard what he sounds like, his gestures and movements. They know him. So convincing everybody—including me—that I’m him is a real artistic challenge,” he said.
As for Rubin (who recently wowed audiences as the emotionally driven Walter Younger in Celebration Arts’ production of A Raisin in the Sun), he’s thrilled about the role of Malcolm’s bodyguard. Rashad “really shows the how and why of people who gravitated toward [Malcolm X] rather than toward Dr. King,” he said. “These men gave people hope, which is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, but they really offered it.”
The Meeting is a limited engagement by 3T Productions, a new company made up of familiar faces. Orland Gladden is directing the show, with Sherry Dunn as his assistant director. Mike W. Benjamin is the artistic director for the new troupe. All are longtime local theater people with a great deal of experience in academic, community and professional productions.
The limited engagement of four performances is selling out quickly, and the company has high hopes for the show. “There’s a line in the play,” said Hodge. “Malcolm says, ‘In five, 10 years at the most, they won’t even remember us.’ And we’ve got youngsters who may think that of themselves, and this can show them that they might be another president, another congressman.”
Rubin agreed. “I just want the legacy to go on, to spark people’s minds to see difference and accept it and work together.”