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Icons & Ideologues

Bessie Smith, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. take to the stage



The two one-act plays on stage together in the Upstart Performing Ensemble production at the Smokebrush Cabaret are purposeful plays, each an example of a playwright on a mission, eclipsing all other elements of the theater in order to make his message heard.

The Meeting, by Jeff Stetson, is the story of a fictional encounter between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in a hotel room in Harlem, 1965. It's a little like having George Washington and Abraham Lincoln get together for a playwright's dramatic purposes. The men are used less as characters in a play and more as fixed historical figures in an awkward reenactment. The men remain inaccessible to Stetson, and despite his token attempts at humanizing an ideological debate, we never learn anything new about the figures and neither one breaks free of his caricaturized role in American history.

Stetson's script suffers from its humorlessness, and neither director Tony Babin nor his cast can find a way to soften the play's hard shell. James Proby as Malcolm X and Jon Smith as his bodyguard, Rashaad, are unable to find a rhythm in their dialogue that will crack the stifled code of characters trapped in the historical record.

James Goff is even more restrained in his portrait of King. While Proby works to explore a range of possibilities in a tormented, prescient X, Goff is unwavering in his staid interpretation of the intimidating icon he is charged to embody.

It's hard to accept two such charismatic men having so much difficulty communicating on a human level, and it's somewhat insulting to each to think they would choose to arm wrestle through a straight, linear, anchored confrontation when the more challenging metaphor of a chess board's intricate maneuvers is brandished but abandoned like an unloaded weapon.

X gets the benefit of the playwright's sympathy, and Stetson offers him an authorial boost by spending so much more time enlarging our understanding of X and so little time fleshing out King. X exists on a personal plane before King's arrival at the hotel, opening the action by waking from a nightmare, his vulnerability established before he slips into politics. King, on the other hand, spends most of the play as a straight man for X, a sounding board to give credence to X's ideas and entice the audience to see the two men as equals. By imagining King's reaction to X and speculating on his respect for the man, Stetson encourages the audience to understand and accept the motivation and drive of each of these leaders.

Edward Albee once said he had never been aware of "getting an idea for a play," a characteristic his critics have not let pass, he added with humor. The one play exception was The Death of Bessie Smith, of which he said, "I wrote because of my rage at what I believed had happened to her in 1937 in the South." The motive shows through in the scenes dealing with Bessie Smith, an unseen character whose story runs parallel with the other characters in the play until it careens into them head-on in an automobile accident bringing Smith and her companion, Jack, to the unwelcoming reception areas of two whites-only Memphis hospitals.

The Death of Bessie Smith is one of Albee's earliest plays, written a year after The Zoo Story, and strikes out for a taste of mainstream accessibility he was otherwise uninterested in early in his career. The play is at its best in creating rich, colorful characters in the Memphis hospitals, establishing the social environment of Albee's imaginative South in the '30s. Babin has difficulty keeping the concurrent scenes with Jack and the unseen Bessie running fluidly, and it is in those scenes that Albee's emerging gifts as a playwright remain dormant. You can feel him forcing the title's plot line into the more grounded realm of his hospital characters, struggling without success to bring the play's two worlds seamlessly together into one theatrical reality.

John Iozzi and Kelly Michaels bring the evening to life in the second scene of the play, offering us the first glimpse of vibrant flesh-and-blood characters instead of the stagnant stream of historical figures paraded out like waxworks -- so real looking, but only so real. Iozzi and Michaels play a father and daughter engaged in a nightly ritual of tearing into each other verbally, sharpening their wits on each other's chiseled psyches, digging in for the kind of combative stand-off each thrives on and seeks out in their relationships.

Chavis Three-Sticks read his lines beautifully as Bernie, making virtually no attempt to hide his script or his reliance on it throughout a two-minute scene in which he's asked to carry off a half-dozen lines of dialogue to open the play. Jon Smith makes an admirable attempt at pulling off Jack, who deals primarily with the unseen blues singer. Goff is much better in his role as an orderly than as King, stretching out with the freedom of creating a character from scratch, and Babin takes the stage himself as an intern, bringing warmth and a love of language to the stage.

Both scripts are flawed, and the production, with its own flaws, is unable to rise above the built-in weaknesses. But there are enough strong performances -- most notably from Proby and Michaels -- to keep the audience engaged and challenged by the ideas at play.

-- Owen Perkins

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