February is Black History Month, and it is the one time of year that we can count on African American-themed works in local theaters. Celebration Arts is Sacramento’s only theater that consistently presents plays from and about the black experience, many of them from South African playwright Athold Fugard and by American August Wilson (whose play “Fences” is now in movie theaters). The current production at Celebration Arts is “The Meeting,” about a fictional meeting between black civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It is excellent.
James Wheatley is a singer, dancer, choreographer, playwright and artistic director of Celebration Arts. He directs this one-act drama with little physical action but plenty of emotional impact. Wheatley, who like many, lived through the struggle for black equity that King and Malcolm X led, has a powerful grasp of the material here and has cast excellent actors in the main roles.
Playwright Jeff Stetson sets his imagined meeting between King and Malcolm X in a Harlem hotel room in 1965. Malcolm X, who has never met Dr. King, has invited him to his room to get to know the man who has taken a diametrically opposite approach to the civil rights struggle. Malcolm X is a firebrand who believes that blacks must take action “by any means necessary” against “white oppressors,” while King, a dedicated follower of Ghandi’s practice of nonviolence, resists by turning the other cheek.
Romann Hodge plays Martin Luther King Jr. and James Ellison plays Malcolm X in this simply staged play which takes place in one spare hotel room (designed by Wheatley). Hodge and Ellison effectively convey the strongly held feelings of each of their characters, illustrating well that though King and Malcolm X had very different philosophies and approaches to the movement, they enjoyed a mutual respect born of their dedication. Ray Garner completes the cast as Rashad, Malcolm X’s bodyguard. It is a small role, but in it, he personifies the dedication and desire to protect Malcolm X that was strong among his followers.
Though Dr. King and Malcolm X differed greatly in their beliefs, each was prepared to die for them. Unfortunately, they both did, and not long after this supposed meeting took place. Malcolm X was killed by rival Black Muslim members while addressing his Organization of Afro-American Unity on Feb. 21, 1965 in Washington Heights, New York. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
“The Meeting” is performed at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 12. Tickets are $10 on Thursdays and $15 on all other days. Discounts are available for students, seniors, groups and SARTA members. For more information: (916) 455-2782 or visit CelebrationArts.net.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X also are represented in “We Come From Greatness,” the latest incarnation of the “Legacy” black history project, a work written by Lisa Lacy with music by Charles Cooper. The annual Images Theatre Company production, which grows and is refined each year, celebrates black history and the African American experience through song, drama, spoken word, music and dance.
The historical reach of “Greatness” extends back to the time of black African kings and up to the time of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. A cast of 10, plus three dancers and a three-piece band performs the musical. Bill Miller, an outstanding singer who has been with the project from the beginning, adds a special heft in the musical department.
The play depicts the African American experience through slavery, emancipation and the rise of the KKK to the Harlem Renaissance, where tribute is paid to such musical greats as Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, and the civil rights movement, where King and Malcolm X are joined by Huey Newton.
“We Come From Greatness” plays through Feb. 19, so only four performances remain. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at Grant Union High School, 1400 Grand Ave. Tickets are $18-$22, with reduced rates for groups of 15 or more. For more information, call (916) 428-1441 or go to ImagesTheatre.org.
Photo courtesy of Celebration Arts