One of the big challenges Lexington actor Whit Whitaker has found in playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is keeping his cool.
“There’s a lot of tense moments in the play where I’ve had to not think of Dr. King as the peaceful, kumbaya, Gandhi-method, spirit of Jesus floating, but I am human, I am going to get upset and push back,” Whitaker says.
In any story of King, there is the tension of the naked racism and constant fight for justice he faced every day. But the show Whitaker is preparing for has the added tension of a face-to-face meeting with his fellow — and sometimes antagonistic — advocate for rights for blacks, Malcolm X.
There is no record of the men actually meeting, but Jeff Stetson’s script for “The Meeting” imagines a summit with the men in a Harlem hotel room at a pivotal point in the mid-1960s. As they talk about their approaches to justice — King advocating peaceful resistance and Malcolm X more open to violence — Malcolm tries to stoke anger in King, both at himself and at the world they live in.
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“Malcolm is always like, ‘Well, doctor’ or ‘Well, reverend,’” Whitaker says, snapping the prestigious titles, “saying this as an insult to try to rile Dr. King up. At the beginning, I was trying to think of Dr. King not getting rattled, but if someone pushes, pushes, pushes, they’re going to get a little bit upset.
“So I have to sit back and think, Dr. King is like the rest of us. He probably did get angry. He probably did push back a little bit.”
Whitaker is trying to humanize King at the same time the civil rights icon is being celebrated on his annual federal holiday. “The Meeting” will be presented late Monday afternoon at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, directed by Patrick J. Mitchell, who also will play Malcolm X.
Mitchell has directed and performed in the show several times while he lived and worked in New York and since returning to Lexington earlier this decade.
“It’s intriguing to think about what they would have said to each other if they had met,” Mitchell says of the play’s premise.
Both Mitchell and Whitaker, who has not been in “The Meeting” before but did play King in “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s play about late President Lyndon B. Johnson, say performing the show set at the peak of the civil rights movement feels different today than it did a few years ago, because of the political climate and events such as white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va. and elsewhere.
“I go through photos from the ’60s, and the signs people were carrying then are the same as ones they’re carrying today,” Mitchell says. “We may not experience the physical degradation that we did back then, but it’s there subconsciously.”
Whitaker says, “With the current political climate, people are feeling more brazen and bold coming out, feeling they have a right to say and do what they want to, so I feel like I personally have the responsibility to forward the message of Dr. King of nonviolence and show that things may not be great now, but there are people like Dr. King and Malcolm X who came before us who fought the tough battles and paved the way so that we’re in the position we’re in now.
“It’s not the best, but people who are going through the racial movement in their time were in a better position than the people who were enslaved. It’s the responsibility of making people remember and not forgetting.”
Rich Copley, @copiousnotes
If you go
What: Jeff Stetson’s play about a fictional meeting of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X
When: 5 p.m. Monday
Where: Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.