Interview: Jeff Stetson – X Marks The Spot, Or For King And Country

February 12, 2017

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

American playwright Jeff Stetson wrote his play The Meeting, about an imagined 1965 meeting between American civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, in 1984. It was first performed in 1987 and has remained popular ever since, with a new production, directed by James Ngcobo, staged at the Market Theatre from 2-26 February 2017.

 

The play is now 30 years old. Have any of the topics it examined – the racism and the politics – changed in any notable way? Or, if they have changed, have they now reverted to type?

It’s very sad that not much is different. It’s all about the perspective, I suppose. We don’t have the signs up anymore, but we do have 62 million who voted for a man endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan, and we’re now going through this changing of legislation to allow for the banning of immigrants and all the rest.

More than that, though, there are the everyday stories about someone getting beaten up or making some blatantly racist comment. And this government is a gentleman’s club. Women are also being marginalised more.

 

Martin Luther King Jr has been honoured with a national day in the US. Malcolm X is not as widely celebrated. Is that a reflection of the power of peaceful protest over violence – or perhaps the popularity of Christianity versus Islam (when considered in the political sense, not the faith-based one)?

Whenever you have people in power, they fear those who might change the existing structures. Malcolm X was feared in that way – King’s non-violent approach made people think, but X told people it was okay to fight back, and that was scary.

In the play, X says that King received concessions because he, X, was the alternative. King was more accessible and it was easier to deal with him. I think that, had they both lived, X would have been the more influential. Andrew Young [who was a friend and colleague of King’s and later ambassador to the UN and mayor of Atlanta] famously said that he thought that King “had died at the right time” – just as his influence was waning.

X, on the other hand, was the kind of guy angry young men would follow. You’re not going to be followed in this way if you preach that death is allowable, as King did; as Christianity does. That’s a dangerous thing to teach youngsters in a country where we worship heroes – the swaggering John Wayne type – and in a place where a five-year-old doesn’t understand how much courage it takes to allow yourself to be beaten and not to fight back.

In another sense, religion leads to race issues. The Bible has always been manipulated, as it was when it was used to keep slaves submissive and their owners entitled.

 

Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were two incredibly charismatic figures. How important is tapping into that in terms of casting the piece for each new production?

It is important, but in theatre there’s a saying that strong actors conceal weaknesses in the script while weak actors reveal its strengths. All writers lack a level of objectivity about their work, but I think I’ve made it possible to see the power of the real men, and the actors just need to be true to that. All actors give you their own gift, and this cast do a good job, though there are some changes in setting.

Technically, the play is not supposed to be changed without input from the playwright, but sometimes ideas are used as nuances to speak to a time and a place – like now, in South Africa.

Visual metaphors can be changed, but sometimes that lessens the impact.

 

How do you ensure, in the writing, that King and X are fully rounded characters on stage, and don’t become historical placeholders? This script is mostly dialogue, with little action.

You have to look at what was happening at the time when I imagined Malcolm calling this meeting. His home has just been firebombed – he knows he’s a dead man walking. So you have one man on edge and another who is coming to support him.

X tries to convince King to change his philosophy away from pure non-violence, knowing that once he – X – is gone, King will have nothing to negotiate with. He’s quite aggressive about it upfront, but King takes this abuse because he’s there to support, and it rings true because it’s part of his character elsewhere, as a Christian and as a pastor.

There’s a moment in the play when the talking gets physical – the men’s hands touch as they’re each making a point and they end up arm wrestling, as two alpha males would. Later in the show, that happens twice more. Now I remember in Los Angeles, at the first show, we had rich and poor, Christians and Muslims, and the mood in the room would swing in support of whichever man won each arm-wrestling match. But then towards the end, everyone began to understand that one man winning would not be ideal; that perspectives have to change and we need to try and understand each other.

When I wrote the play in 1984, it was as a tool to try and teach kids who weren’t alive during the civil rights movement, to try and make them see that both King and X could – and should – be accepted.

 

Perceptions can make teaching that lesson more difficult. King is often seen as a Mandela-esque figure while X is regarded as an unpredictable militant, with those perceptions affecting the way there messages are received.

There were police and security forces at the performances of The Meeting here in Johannesburg 30 years ago, recording the Q&A sessions after the shows to try and understand what kind of activism was being activated and how dangerous it was. That amazed me, but just as amazing is the way that youngsters – I’m talking five-, six- and seven-year-olds – are still seeing things in the story that adults miss. That may be because they have no filter, but they’re also inspired to go and do more reading and research, which is a good thing.

 

Is theatre as a means of exploring history and politics and engaging in activism as much of a priority as you’d like it to be?

I deal with this question with those of my students who want to write. There are writers for hire, and that’s fine, but if you’re an artist, you are political, and saying that you’re not is a political act in itself. You’re making history every two-hour period that the play is on stage. People need to know the power of words and to understand their consequences.

Everything I do is from the perspective of trying to understand the history of a country that I’m a part of, to hold up a mirror to what we are, were and could be. We have a responsibility: the stage takes in science, philosophy, religion and, of course, the arts. It brings people together.

 

The Missing has been produced here this year as part of Black History Month. What are your views on the intent and effectiveness of this initiative?

It’s about, in some ways, accepting that you have the power and you can now grant someone something. But it’s ironic that South Africa has a Black History Month – isn’t that what you guys are doing all the time? That said, it makes sense that it happens at this time of year, with King’s birthday in January. And I suppose if there is such a thing as Black History Month, to not deal with King and X would be ridiculous.

 

You said you wrote this as an educational tool. Did that have anything to do with its simplicity – one room; just three characters?

It had to be a self-contained play, but that was not really a concern when writing. And I get feedback now that the text is used to teach public speaking classes – both King and X have some great speeches in the script.

I think the thing I’m most proud of with The Meeting is that it has allowed hundreds – maybe thousands – of black actors to get good roles in what is often a difficult professional situation. Sometimes, it’s been the piece that has inspired people to stay in the industry and to start writing.

And though the meeting I’ve written about didn’t happen, it does ring true, which is important for me. I remember, I was part of a playwright’s group in Los Angeles early on, and there were loads of successful people involved. The Meeting was picked as part of a festival where your play would be staged twice a week, and it was really successful – sold-out houses when others were a quarter full. I remember seeing James Earl Jones coming in, and Morgan Freeman came three times.

So I’m all excited about how it’s going and then in one performance, there’s a woman in a headscarf who’s annoying me, talking to people next to her throughout the show. Afterwards, I’m introduced to her – it’s Ruby Dee [prominent civil rights activist and a personal friend of both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X]! She had been trying to arrange a meeting between them shortly before X’s death.

She got it.

 

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