New York Times: 2016/17 Repertory is “A Stroke of Curatorial Inspiration”
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Review: Shakespeare Meets Black Power in ‘Caesar/X’
By ELISABETH VINCENTELLI
MARCH 21, 2017
It’s not very often that a family show concludes on a stage littered with corpses. But then, there is no way to sugarcoat the brutality of “Julius Caesar,” and this new, abridged production, from the Acting Company, is kid-friendly mostly by virtue of context: It is being presented at the New Victory Theater, where audience members often need booster seats rather than a well-stocked bar.
But the real coup isn’t to make “Julius Caesar” accessible to young theatergoers: It’s to present Shakespeare in repertory with Marcus Gardley’s new play, “X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation,” which imagines a trial investigating Malcolm X’s murder — call it a dream-history play. The two shows stand on their own; the juxtaposition is a stroke of curatorial inspiration.
The productions share Lee Savage’s set, which places some audience members onstage, sitting on amphitheater-like bleachers. In “Julius Caesar,” they might stand in for Roman senators, witnessing the machinations leading to the gory Ides of March. In “X,” they are a de facto jury, watching Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz (a willful Chelsea Lee Williams), prosecute her late husband’s associate-turned-foe Louis X, best known as Louis Farrakhan (Jonathan-David, wonderfully unctuous).
Both plays look at how a leader deals with power, and at what happens when friends, family or colleagues turn on that leader. They also share betrayals and bloodshed — highly stylized (with red ribbons in “Julius Caesar”), but still shown unblinkingly.
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Mr. Gardley has long drawn from history, in such plays as “On the Levee”(set against the Mississippi flood of 1927); “the road weeps, the well runs dry” (inspired by a 19th-century Seminole community in Oklahoma); and “The Box: A Black Comedy” (about African-American men and prison). Here he and the director, Ian Belknap, bring the feuds that roiled the radical black-liberation movement of the 1960s to vivid life.
Although he clearly did his research, Mr. Gardley is not interested in naturalistic docudrama. The action takes place in a courtroom “between reality and the tomb,” and at one point, Betty Shabazz sashays her way through a Motown-style song about her love for Malcolm (Jimonn Cole).
The best scenes pit the ramrod-straight Shabazz, convinced that the Nation of Islam fomented her husband’s 1965 assassination, against the silver-tongued Louis X, who defends the organization. He is as calm and as lethal as a coiled snake, a slick charmer playing to the judge (N’Jameh Camara), who wears a gown and a hijab, and the jury.
Both parties call on an array of witnesses, including the entertainingly bumbling Eugene Roberts (Joshua David Robinson), who was Malcolm’s bodyguard for a while, but also an informant for the F.B.I. and the New York City Police Department.
“Nobody loved Jesus more than Judas!,” this double agent argues. “Without Judas, Jesus wouldn’t be the Christ. It takes all kinds, right? Without Judas, Jesus is just another prophet on a donkey.”
These dynamics — not to mention the sight of a slain powerful man — are echoed in “Julius Caesar,” in which the title character (Gabriel Lawrence) is brought down by a cabal led by his friends Cassius (William Sturdivant) and Brutus (Mr. Cole). It is Brutus who is on the receiving end of the agonizing Caesar’s anguished cry of “Et tu, Brute” — and then he pulls out a gun, which looks rather awkward, given that he is wearing a toga.
Indeed, the most jarring element in the production, otherwise smoothly directed by Devin Brain, is the decision to shift from swords to rifles, from sandals to combat boots, over the course of the play. Unfortunately, fatigues are by now a cliché in Shakespearean war dramas. But then, you may be reminded that many of the theatergoers are young (both shows are recommended for audiences 13 and up), and this visual device is an efficient way to indicate what’s going on without overexplaining.
Like the best New Victory shows, this double bill rewards alert teenagers and jaded adults alike. And the message in the two productions will be familiar to any student of power: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Though when your friends are the ones plotting your demise, you don’t need enemies at all.