March 22, 2017

"X, or Betty Shabazz v. the Nation" is a Compelling Requiem for a Complex Man

People have been telling me I should see a Marcus Gardley play for years now. But I somehow missed his breakout play The House that Will Not Stand and all the subsequent ones. Until this past weekend. And now having seen his X, or Betty Shabazz v. the Nation, which is playing at The New Victory Theatre only until March 25, I can see what the fuss is all about.

Gardley's meditation on the life and death of the black activist Malcolm X is set in an imagined purgatory in which Malcolm's widow Betty Shabazz appeals to a high court to determine who killed her husband, who was infamously gunned down in front of her and three of their six young daughters while he was giving a speech in February 1965.

All the major landmarks in Malcolm's story are recounted—his conversion to the Nation of Islam while he was in prison for burglary, his emergence as the black nationalist sect's most charismatic spokesman, his eventual falling out with its leaders, his embrace of traditional Islam and adoption of a new name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and the previous attempts on his life (click here to read more about him and the making of the show).

A few other fabricated events have been thrown in as well, such as the fantasy that Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr., who like Malcolm would be assassinated at the age of 39, had regular secret meetings about how they could work together to advance the cause of full rights for African Americans. If only.

The three gunmen who killed Malcolm were all identified as members of the Nation of Islam. But who gave the order for the assassination remains a mystery, with the likely suspects including the sect's leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm's primary rival and the group's current leader Louis Farrakhan and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

But the play, which The Acting Company is running in repertory with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, clearly means to indict the larger society for allowing it to happen. Still, Gardley investigates all the options, leaving the final verdict up to each viewer.

At heart, though, Gardley is a poet and as my friend Essie, herself a poet, noted, the play is filled with gorgeous soliloquies. It also has singing, stepping (the synchronized style of dance practiced by black fraternities and sororities) and, surprisingly, lots of humor too.

The acting, under Ian Belknap's robust direction, is across-the-board superb. Several of the actors even bear a physical resemblance to the characters they're playing. Jimonn Cole is darker than Malcolm was but captures his focused intensity.

The dynamic Jonathan David not only looks like Farrakhan but also emanates the unctuousness I remember when I once interviewed Farrakhan. It makes perfect sense that David also plays the similarly wily Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.

Malcolm's story has been told before, most famously in the autobiography he co-wrote with Alex Haley and in the 1992 Spike Lee movie that starred Denzel Washington. But it still resonates. As Essie and I made our way out of the theater, I saw a young woman sitting stunned in her chair and wiping away tears. This production, like Malcolm, deserves a longer life.

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