Despite appeals from the crowd, Tariq Karim El-Shabazz promised it would be his last performance onstage.
The lawyer by trade joined with the Rev. Alyn Waller and took on their first, and at least for El-Shabazz last, roles as thespians, playing Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., respectively in the play The Meeting.
A collaboration between Waller’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church and the non-profit Masjidullah Inc., the play portrays a fictional meeting between King and Malcolm X in the later’s room at a Harlem hotel days before his assassination during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom.
In four performances this weekend at William Penn Charter School’s Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts, the two actors performed and held question and answer sessions to the approximately 1800 audience members who came.
Asked about the collaboration between the two organizations representing the two religions, both El-Shabazz and Waller said they decided to meet and come together to highlight issues that were important to all their followers as members of the community.
“[Faith] does matter, faith is vibrant,” Waller said. “We’re sitting precariously now in a time where if we don’t come together what will our children have.”
Both men spoke of taking action in the 2014 midterm elections, with Waller advocating against Gov. Tom Corbett’s re-election campaign.
“If we don’t get Corbett out of here our children are in trouble,” Waller said.
El-Shabazz similarly spoke of community action, encouraging audience members to use speech and action to express feelings about their community.
“When are we going to start talking with our tongues, hating with our hearts and doing with our hands,” El-Shabazz said.
“It takes each one of us, every single person has to do their part, and sometimes we have to be insighted to awareness, motivated to action,” producer Joilet Harris said. “That’s all this is about, starting a movement.”
Tickets from the event raised money for the Molefi Kete Asante Institute, a non-profit think-tank located on Germantown Avenue dedicated to Afrocentric Studies.
Asante, the foundation’s founder and namesake, who is also chair of the African-American studies department at Temple University, said he saw the performance as a success, and was waiting to announce the amount raised from the performances later this week.
“It was overwhelming, it was powerful,” Asante said. “The play was about the politics, ultimately, of the next two to three years, and this was just the vehicle.”
In the play, Malcolm X requests a meeting with King, who secretly enters the backdoor of the hotel and walks of a flight of stairs to Malcolm X’s room. The two, argumentative at first, participate in intense debate about the value of violent resistance and civil disobedience.
The play examines Malcolm X during the period of time after his departure from Nation of Islam and conversion to Sunni Islam, when he began to embrace more collaboration with the Civil Rights Movement led by King. At the same time, some historians say King was leaning toward the possible inclusion of violent measures into his program of civil disobedience.
Both actors said they struggled to adopt their own views of their characters while having to strictly keep to the original words of the script, written by Jeff Stetson in 1987.
“The writer leans in Malcolm’s direction,” Waller said. “But we don’t have to pick a winner.”
“Dealing with people who are not in the business… it took them some time to understand that we had to say Jeff Stetson’s words,” Harris said. “But delivery of the words, which is every actor’s responsibility, is what would make the difference.”
Harris said she was first approached by Waller to put on the play during a church event in August 2013. Harris, an actress with close to 20 years of experience, said Waller and El-Shabazz had already been planning the play for about a year before she was approached.
Starting in November, both Waller and El-Shabazz began receiving one-on-one acting lessons to prepare for their roles, and it wasn’t until Feb. 17 that they participated in the first full-dress rehearsal.
“It was kind of rough because pastor Waller and Tariq both are such high profile gentlemen that their schedules are really busy and they were gone all the time so we had to piecemeal it together,” Harris said.
Members of the audience said they would like to see the show put on more times throughout the Philadelphia area to help spread the message, in addition Harris said the organizers have received requests to perform from as far as Maryland.
Because both of the main characters were played by amateurs, Harris said to make the production traveling and involving professional actors would require further efforts on behalf of the organizers.
“It would change logistically if we got all union people involved,” Harris said. “We haven’t worked that out yet, but we are working on it.”