“The Meeting” by Jeff Stetson is a dramatic fictional account of a meeting between civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The two men offered different approaches and philosophies to achieve equality, and “The Meeting” explores those differences.
“I don’t think Martin’s movement would have been as successful if there wasn’t a Malcolm X,” said Johnnie Newsom, who portrayed Malcolm X’s bodyguard, Rashad.
The two figures were often viewed as rivals – competing for the same goal of equality but through different approaches. King and his followers practiced non-violence resistance, while Malcolm X and his followers believed equality should be achieved “by any means necessary.”
“The Meeting” highlights the perception and misconceptions of each leader’s respective approach, while also shining light on the similarities the two men shared, especially in the latter years of their lives.
Former Memphis and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton highlighted the similarities during a talk back session that followed the production.
“Perhaps, because they feared what Malcolm might do, that their back door way out was to listen to Martin,” Wharton said. “However, Malcolm was coming closer to Martin, and Martin was coming closer to Malcolm.”
The cast discussed their knowledge of the two icons, as well as the process and feelings that came with portraying the historical figures.
“I’ve always been a real fanatic with Malcolm. I knew about Martin because we learned in school about Martin, but with Malcolm, I had to do my own research, and I became really just intrigued with the man himself,” said Thomas Tapley, who portrayed King.
Jared Dalton portrayed Malcolm X and said he also knew more about King than his character.
“I may not have known so much about him, but I, definitely felt the sentiments. I always felt it was OK to have dignity and think I had self worth,” said Dalton, who said he saw the change in Malcolm X as he grew older and after his trip to Mecca.
“Oftentimes, he was portrayed as the bad guy, because he wasn’t the nonviolent Martin Luther King. He was the opposite, but I think what you have to look at is that his violence – as people saw it - wasn’t him saying, ‘Go out into the community and cause all of this trouble and everything.’ He was saying, ‘protect yourself,’” Newsom said.
Centerstage founder Mitchell Vantrease said the desire to put on the play came from a conversation last year with Jenny Bennett, Cumberland University’s development officer.
“We talked a little bit about it, and she said, ‘You know the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination is next year? I had no idea. I felt like it was the time to do it,” Vantrease said.
Tapley said he felt it was the right time to put on the production, as well, but admitted preparing for the show took its toll on cast members.
“There would be times during rehearsal where we would just have to stop and take some time to get it together,” he said. “When you think about all the things this man went through and did for us, it’s emotional.”
A portion of the proceeds from the shows will go to the AC Wharton Family Scholarship fund at Cumberland University. The scholarship, established in 1989, honors Mary and AC Wharton Sr. and is awarded to an incoming freshman from Wilson County who majors in business and needs financial support.
Vantrease said “The Meeting” was not a part of the group’s in-season productions and kicked off another component of the community theatre.
“Doing theater is more than just, I feel, entertaining. It’s about education, so this is the start of what we’re going to consider an education outreach component of Centerstage,” he said.