MOSES AT GETHSEMANE
A One-Act Play
By G. Joyce Chatman
CHARACTERS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
Quartet – two men and two women of African-American descent, in their mid-to-late 30s
who portray various roles throughout play
MARTIN – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American male in his late 30s
Memphis, Tennessee, in late March, early April of 1968
Scene 1: Beale Street, the afternoon of March 28, 1968 after a march led by Dr. King that ended in a riot
Scene 2: The home of Ralph and Juanita Abernathy where Martin and Coretta King have joined them for a fried fish dinner the same night.
Scene 3: Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine Hotel the evening of April 3, 1968
Scene 4: Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine Hotel the next afternoon
[Open on “march” as Quartet members break into chatter.]
- Dr. King! They’re breaking windows
- The police are arresting looters!
- A bunch of young thugs!
- Somebody paid them to do it!
- Should we keep marching?
- Dr. King! What should we do?
[Quartet exits and MARTIN moves forward.]
Infamous this day in Memphis, city of my demise. Not since I sat in the belly of the whale that was the Birmingham jail have I know such despair. Beale Street’s blue today, corrupted by youthful greed and impoverished need. But I can’t sing the blues! I only know the words of hymns and the melodies of spirituals. This street that shared its secrets with Elvis gives me no victory, no joy, no success today. Perhaps, like him, I should have skulked through the night to come and take from you all I need and not pay the Beale, but get paid like those who loot and destroy you, oh, great bastion of the blues. (sings) “Jesus, please forgive me. This is not the fight I seek. Jesus, please forgive me. This is not the fight I seek. I’ve done all you said. Held my peace and turned the other cheek.” Take me away from here where shattered glass cracks my voice crying out for justice, but not my resolve, not my spine. I stand determined and unafraid of violence and will not foster it. Bayard, you taught me well Ghandi’s way of waging peace! The great Mahatma taught me that non-violence is the only form of peaceful resistance, but Bayard Rustin unarmed my guards. Never can I raise a hand or a fist in anger in this fight. Never can I wield a weapon or strike a blow. Never can I lead a march that becomes a riot. God, deliver me from this tempest in Memphis! This is not my march. This is not my day. Memphis, you will not steal my dream like Elvis stealing notes from Beale Street to write his own ticket and become the King of Rock & Roll. Here in his kingdom, he rules. And I cannot dethrone him in the name of justice. Were there truly grace in this land – this home of a king, but not this one so named – there would be justice. And I would not be here to endure the injustice of having my methods mocked, my nonviolent protest disrupted by violence – outrageous but not outraged. No, this violence, calculated down to the dollar, knows no anger; only avarice. And I am outraged by its lack of rage. There is no real violence here, just mindlessness. A mob of mercenaries follows me, but I will not lead them that lead me to my own destruction by their wanton willingness to compromise our cause for a few dollar bills. Beale Street has forced me to sing the blues and leave a march defeated. Not beaten, not bowed, but far from victorious. I leave today to return, armed with righteousness and real wrath that needs no violent expression. I go with God from this place of disgrace, from the land of the free fall into the depth of despair to the home of the Braves. Atlanta, I return to your welcome arms! Your sanctuary will be my respite. Your love will be my solace, my peace; be still on this Beale Street so blue – my Waterloo? No, I am no tyrant bringing down destruction, conquering through war. I am but a servant of the Prince of peace, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience; walking in the very footsteps of my Savior. I walked in those footsteps to Selma and to Washington and they will lead me back here to Memphis.
[Quartet enters and starts talking]
- Your husband didn’t say much during dinner.
- He’s just tired. Maybe he’s feeling better since he ate.
- He sure ate a lot!
- Well, he said he wanted some fish. Come calling me talking ‘bout, “Juan, why don’t me and Ralph just buy some fish and you and Corie can cook it for us instead of us going out to eat tonight?” Funny how men are always finding things for us women to do!
- Isn’t it?
- That’s a wife’s duty – to serve her husband. Says so in the Bible.
- Here you go again, talking about Paul. Did Paul have a wife?
- No, but what difference does that make?
- A lot! How can some man who’s never been married make the rules about marriage?
[Has been standing in the center of the Quartet, but moves away for monologue and Quartet exits once he starts speaking]
I hear them talking, laughing, their chatter clutters my ears, making them itch. I know they’re talking, but I don’t know what they’re talking about; because no one is talking about what happened today. They avoid talking about it because they don’t want to upset me. But they upset me more by not talking about it- pretending none of it happened. But it did happen and there is no amount of small talk, joviality, or fried fish that can erase that fact. This day was not my dawn of triumph, neither was it my twilight of defeat. This day remained neutral in the struggle, not taking sides. These twenty-four hours are not my enemy any more than are the misguided youth who tried to shatter a dream on Beale Street and were only able to shatter glass. I do not regret this day nor can I revere it. I just remember it as a lesson in tactics and tenacity. Yet, despite this degree in strategy so recently earned, I will have no victory march in this city without great sacrifice. What more can you take? You already ravished Beale Street, leaving it a relic while your King grew rich from the music he pirated there. Perhaps it is fitting that Beale Street finally exploded in fury today after years of singing the blues for the profit of others. I don’t condone the violence, but I understand it. As a race, we have forgiven so much. But the burden of that forgiveness is a heavy one straddling our backs and pushing us down. I’m not complaining, Lord. I know you brought us here in the hold of slaveships because you had a purpose for us being here. Considering that the people who enslaved us called themselves your servants, maybe you brought us here to show them who you really are. We sure found out in those cotton fields and on those auction blocks. Yes, we discovered the Lord of Moses and created America’s first original art form to express our spirituality. Pharoah let us go, but we are still trying to get to the Promised Land. I know we’ll get there some day. My faith in the Lord tells me we’ll get there and it won’t be much longer. It’s just years, months, weeks, days away. And this day – this day in Memphis will not stop us from getting to the land of milk and honey; the promise of the American dream, my dream.
[One member of Quartet enters; he speaks, then exits]
-Dr. King, you sure you don’t want to go to the church with us?
Ya’ll go on. I need some time. [hums “In the Garden” as he prepares to pray]
Moses couldn’t come to the garden because his death had no agony. It was a peaceful passing. Were mine to be, I would not know Gethsemane. But its trees call me to pray under their branches, sit in their shade amid the cool breezes rustling through their leaves. There to make a solitary pilgrimage to my God’s throne. [he kneels to pray] Moses, I join you on Ararat. Now, I know your exultation and your terror. God, how cruel to bring us to the top but not the other side. Only such a God would let your humble servant see the fruit of all his labor, knowing he will never taste it. I thank you for this view [stands] standing on the mountaintop. I can see the future of my people, much like Moses seeing Israel with its own state. I see my people in places of power, ruling this land; making laws and enforcing them; building banks and running them; teaching in ivy league schools; managing Fortune 500 companies; owning, managing, and coaching major sports franchises; dominating the armed forces as generals and admirals; filling the House and the Senate and even the White House – my people in high places- higher than any mountain ever scaled by man. Lord, let me rest on the mountaintop for all eternity, like Moses, watching my dream unfold into full-fledged reality. It was not one man’s dream, but the dream of all humankind. You gave me the vision, now they will have the reality – those future generations who come after me and live the dream. Mountain, I must leave you and your forward vision. I return to Gethsemane to pray [kneels] and I will leave there in peace – ready to face the fate that awaits me. [Quartet re-enters and walks over to MARTIN]
- Dr. King! They’re asking for you at the church. They want you to speak! Come on, I’ll take you! [Two of them rush out]
[Pacing back and forth when Quartet comes in]
Where have you been all day, Andrew?
- You know I was in court all day.
You’re supposed to be where I can reach you! [laughs and picks up pillow and hits him with it]
- Hey, don’t hit me with that pillow! [others stop singing and grab pillows and hit him] Ya’ll stop! [one member of the quartet turns to MARTIN]
- Dr. King, we’ve got to get ready to go.
All right, go on outside so I can get dressed. [Quartet exits] Lord, I feel like getting dressed for battle! I know we’re just going out for dinner, but I feel good- better than I’ve felt in a month. I feel so good, I hate to see the sun go down. I want that sun to keep shining and the moon to just keep still tonight. This should be a night without darkness – one that shines for all eternity. God bless this day as it turns toward twilight and let it end in peace. I know this day is a special day and will be remembered as will this great city for its part in today’s history. It was one single day that brought infamy to Memphis, so let this day bring it glory. Let this day be a day of rejoicing and recompense forevermore. No more weeping and wailing in Memphis! Oh, they’re still singing the blues on Beale Street and its distortion in Graceland, but tonight we’ll be singing hymns of joy in this beautiful city where poor people stand united. Memphis, the bell of the South, God gave you this day to make history. Historical times are not new to you. You’ve had your place in the history books, but you are about to write a new chapter in those same books whose pages are smeared with the blood of those whose history they record. Let this latest chapter be bloodless, oh great city. And if blood must be spilled to provide ink to write your story, let it only be a drop. Lord, I feel like marching to Zion! [exits, then, suddenly, a gunshot is heard offstage]