I feel blessed, grateful, and pretty much totally overwhelmed that my two-character play about Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel will be performed during Dr. King's birthday week -- at Riverside Church. Because, on January 15, 1967, they were both there -- Dr. King to give his historic speech against the war in Vietnam, Rabbi Heschel to introduce him, as together they dared to support what was still an unpopular cause.
But it was a cause in which they believed. And they continued to stand up and speak out together for the causes in which they believed for the amazing six years that they knew each other.
Could the performance be an iconic celebration of the relationship between these two men: not only political allies; not only, I believe, friends; but also, if not soul mates, at the least ethical mirrors of each other? I hope so.
I call it a potentially "iconic" event, because I somehow believe that the energy, intelligence and power of the words and thoughts that filled the church 49 years ago still resonate in its stones, ceilings, and stained glass windows. Perhaps they even reverberate particularly strongly because of how the two men's spirits, integrity, strength, conviction and courage were so perfectly aligned with each others'.
The play is not only about the speech at the church, and King's difficult and ultimately dangerous decision to come out against the war, although it does include the two men's weighing the pros and cons of his decision. They both knew it would alienate President Johnson, who until then had been such a strong supporter of Civil Rights. They knew he would probably never talk to King again; and he didn't.
All their advisers had urged them to not come out against the war. Dr. King was harshly criticized for not staying exclusively with his fight for Civil Rights. Heschel was repeatedly blamed for not focusing only on Jewish issues. They were warned they would be seen as unpatriotic. "No," said Heschel. "I am not only a Jew. I am also an American."
It was in a church that Dr. King gave his speech, an inter-denominational church, honoring both King's and Heschel's powerful beliefs in God, to whom they both turned in despair, and to whom they both turned for courage. Because courage they needed. And courage they had.
I love that these two men, who on the surface seem so different, one black, one white, one a Christian, one a Jew -- had so much in common. Even on the day that they met, on January 14, 1963, in Chicago, where both men gave speeches at a Conference on Race and Religion, both men (obviously not conferring, it was their first meeting!), chose to quote the same, exact passage from the prophet Amos. It was to describe their common vision for the world, where "Justice would roll down like waters, and Righteousness like a mighty stream."
These icons somehow always found the courage to speak up for what they believed, however unpopular, even though neither could really afford to alienate many more people. Orthodox Jews were constantly putting Heschel down for being too liberal and radical. King was even rudely mocked by many of his black brothers, who found his insistence on Non-violence weak and ineffective.
And still, they stood up for what they believed. In 1964, Heschel led a march on FBI headquarters in New York to protest the violence in Selma and to deliver a petition demanding protection for people working for voting rights -- risking his life. Just as King did every time he marched or ended up in jail.
In 1963, King helped set up a conference on Soviet Jews that Heschel attended, and in 1967 King co-authored a formal protest for the New York Times decrying Egypt's blockade in Tehran, which would cut Israel off from all of Africa and Asia.
Ah, had either of them listened to their critics! But no, they were men of integrity who had the strength to listen to their own truth -- always for the benefit of others, even when it meant risking their lives. Because every time they marched (and they marched!) their lives were on the line. And they knew it.
I love the photos of them marching, next to each other in the front row at Selma, the two of them strong and straight as a mountain, both even the same height, and sturdy in the same way. And the photos of them marching, again in the front row, at Arlington National Cemetery, to protest the war in Vietnam.
And there is the famous phone call: when King asked Heschel to march with him at Selma, even though the first march there had caused so much bloodshed. And Heschel's inevitable answer. "Of course."
Is it an iconic miracle when two people stand together as one for right, a sign that there is hope that all people will come together as one, peacefully, without hatred for their differences? It is certainly the future for which Heschel and King fought all their lives.
I like to believe that they were such good friends, so important to each other, and so bonded, that when King died, it was inevitable that Heschel was there to speak at his funeral; and that when Heschel died, it was King's widow, Coretta, who spoke at his memorial.
So when two actors stand at Riverside Church as King and Heschel, debating the wisdom of King's finally coming out against the war, could it be an iconic moment? It will be enough if it is only a celebration of a friendship between two giants who helped to make our a world better place. Perhaps the reality of such a friendship and such devotion is powerful, inspiring and iconic enough.
A RADICAL FRIENDSHIP, Jane Marla Robbins' play about Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, will be performed in New York on January 21. Her last play, Reminiscences of Mozart by His Sister, was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and produced there and at Lincoln Center.