“The Meeting – Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr”, a play about a fictional meeting between the two iconic black leaders, debuts in Rio in October
By Marques Travae
Get into any debate about black leadership of the 20th century and, inevitably, the discussion will come down to perhaps the two most well-known, iconic figures of the 1960s: Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) and Malcolm X (MX). The debate over which leader black Americans should have followed and whose ideology would be the best to address the continued oppression of Africa’s descendants is ongoing and can be applied to many other settings outside of the United States. Having been connected to Brazil for nearly two decades now, I can attest to the fact that the MLK vs. MX debate has grown stronger as more and more black Brazilians have become familiar with the two giant representatives of the black struggle.
Books about the two have translated into Portuguese and documentaries and speeches by and about the two have been re-released with Portuguese subtitles, making their messages reverberate in a different context, setting and language. Of course, King having received a higher status within more mainstream social movements, he is of course more well-known in Brazil. But as I’ve shown in a number of past posts, Malcolm’s legacy is also well represented in Brazil with a number of politically conscious rappers citing his autobiography as an enormous influence in their lives and on their racial/political consciousness. These elements were responsible for bringing one of Malcolm’s daughters to Brazil to participate in the 2015 Month of Black Consciousness festivities.
It is against this backdrop of exposure to the works, speeches and lives of these two giants that The Meeting, a play written by Jeff Stetson and debuting in the US in 1987 hits the stage in Brazil. Based on an imaginary meeting and debate between the two civil/human rights leaders, the play once again challenges viewers to come to a conclusion about whose path would lead the black masses to liberty.
The play, O Encontro – Malcolm X e Martin Luther King Jr, or The Meeting – Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. debuts in Brazil on October 4th, 7pm, at the Teatro Sesi in Rio de Janeiro. The play’s season will run from Thursdays to Saturdays.
The play is directed by Isaac Bernat and its arrival to Brazil couldn’t come at a better moment. Many African-Americans, including myself, have often concluded that, in many ways, the Afro-Brazilian struggle for racial equality, the end of racism and police brutality and the push for equal opportunity, is about 4-5 decades behind the situation of African-Americans. The translation and adaptation of the play is by Rogério Corrêa.
“We are faced with an irreconcilable, forceful, tender and humane dramaturgy that deals with issues such as racism, discrimination and social injustice, actions that prevent society from being fair and equal. The visions and practices of Malcolm and Martin have much to inspire and teach us at this moment in which humanity seems lost and hopeless. Aline Mohamad and I have been trying to stage it for years and now the time has come,” says director Bernat.
For those outside of Brazil who may not have the slightest clue about the realities of race relations and discrimination in Brazil, or those Brazilians who continue to insist that “não existe racism no Brasil” (racism doesn’t exist in Brazil), you may wonder how a play based in the United States could possibly have any meaning in Brazil that has a slightly different historical development and context. But upon closer inspection, one must come to the conclusion that, in terms of “race and place”, the racial situation in the US and Brazil has more things in common than one would be believe, which is exactly the reason that so many black Brazilians have come to understand and identify with the stories of Martin and Malcolm.
Consider just few facts:
- The rate of homicide of blacks in Brazil is such that it is defined as genocide by black leaders
- Afro-Brazilians vastly trail white Brazilians in every category that measures socio-economic inequality and quality of life
- Afro Brazilians are the majority of the population that is considered extremely poor
- While 22.9% of white Brazilians have a college degree, only 9.3% of blacks do
- Of 81 senators in Brazil’s Congress, only two are black
These are just a few facts. Delving deeper into the situation and becomes quite easy to understand why the messages and movements of MLK and MX are perhaps more relevant and widespread today than at any time in Brazil’s history.
“The assembly is important at this time because we are experiencing a period of strong polarizations and intolerances of various orders. We, blacks, are still in situations of a lot of inequality. This diagnosis has become cliché, but it is a reality. He was both cerebral and a strategist and at the same time instinctive and possessing a powerful intuition and a demolishing force,” says Izak Dahora, the actor who portrays Malcolm.
In my own analysis of the ideologies of the two giants, I concluded long ago that following the integrationist path of MLK would to a situation in which blacks consistently assimilate and are ultimately suffocated in a sea of whiteness. Brazil itself is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this. What we see in many of Brazil’s big cities today is a situation in which more and more Afro-Brazilians are attaining a college education, prominent jobs and solidly middle class lifestyles. The result of this is that after struggling to succeed and becoming the first in their families to do so, most black Brazilians end up integrating into mostly white neighborhoods and environments and in following, end up marrying white. Passing their success on to their children, the second generation often repeats the cycle and thus effectively passes this success, income and knowledge on to white or nearly white mestiço offspring after a few generations. As such, how does MLK’s “dream” of little white boys and girls holding hands with little black boys and girls advance the black struggle? MLK himself came to believe that he was helping to integrate his people into a burning house. We see this everyday in a Brazil in which many whites clearly show their discomfort with seeing blacks in places previously only occupied by only people with white skin. We see it everyday in which black children are harassed, belittled and ridiculed by their white classmates with no sort of protection from their teachers. I ask, is this ultimately what we want? For me, integration into a system in which one race continues to sit atop the racial hierarchy and feel they are entitled to be there at the exclusion of others is not a “dream” situation. It is a nightmare. And even those who lean more towards MLK’s path would have to agree with this assessment.
Even if I disagree with the MLK’s dream of integration, his story still inspires those who see that his experience can definitely be applied to the Brazilian situation. Rodrigo França, who plays MLK in the piece, put it this way:
“Although it is a crime, we still have a tendency to conceal racism, which in Brazil kills, injures, excludes and drives one crazy. This assembly is one more to touch in this wound. To the extent that spectaculars work this theme, we contribute to the reflection on this reality. Martin showed that it is worth fighting and seeking a more egalitarian and more equitable society, always using diplomacy, cordiality and pedagogy as tools.”
This is the second Brazilian adaptation of an American play based on a fictional story about MLK in recent years, the first being O Topo da Montanha (Mountaintop) featuring Lázaro Ramos and Taís Araújo.