Theater review: Malcolm X on a Shakespearean pedestal

Theater review: Malcolm X on a Shakespearean pedestal

Theater review: Malcolm X on a Shakespearean pedestal

Kerry Lengel , The Republic |  2:56 p.m. MT Feb. 3, 2017

Marcus Gardley comes not to bury Malcolm X but to praise him.

Gardley is an Oakland, Calif., playwright known for his poetical language in works including “… And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” and “Black Odyssey.” His latest is “X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation,” commissioned by the Acting Company, based in New York, for a world-premiere national tour that launched this week in Arizona.

Jimonn Cole stars in The Acting Company's national tour of "X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation" (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

The play is written as a cosmic court trial in which Betty Shabazz (Chelsea Williams), widow of the controversial black-nationalist leader, accuses his onetime “brothers” in the Nation of Islam of his 1965 assassination. But the Nation’s “Louis X” (Jonathan-David) — a plausibly deniable stand-in for the real-life Louis Farrakhan — has alternate theories involving the FBI, the CIA and the NYPD.

Directed by Ian Belknap, the play is performed on an austere set (scenic design by Lee Savage) done up as a miniature auditorium. Black-and-white renderings of two flags, of the United States and of the Nation of Islam, fly over metallic bleachers where members of the audience sit onstage within touching distance of the actors.

The Acting Company's "X" features (from left) N'Jameh Camara, Chelsea Williams and Tatiana Weschler. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The courtroom conceit is a familiar one, but Gardley uses it to great effect in an exuberantly theatrical script punctuated by allusions to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (which is being performed by the same cast for this national tour) and musical interludes including a humorous salute to Motown girl groups. Shifts into rhyming poetry recall the spoken-word tradition of Gil Scott-Heron (“We crowned with him an X / We dressed him for success”).

As the witnesses are questioned, “X” plays out as a sort of “Rashomon” (or Rorschach test), with the former Malcolm Little (Jimonn Cole) characterized as a loving husband, an ambitious traitor, a preacher of hate and crusader for social justice. Theatergoers — addressed as “the jury” — are invited to make their own judgment, but in the end it is clear where the playwright’s heart lies. He zooms in on Malcolm X’s turn away from incendiary rhetoric and his call for brotherhood, and “X” becomes a sort of hagiography — a “life of the saint” that extols its subject as a giant among men.

Yet it is anything but simplistic, and even the characters who may ultimately be interpreted as the villains of the piece emerge as complex and fully human, thanks to Gardley’s empathic, passionate writing and a talented cast. Jonathan-David is particularly riveting as Louis X, animated by an eely verbal agility.

“X” may draw comparisons to “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s popular 2009 play about the assassination of Martin Luther King. Both works aim to humanize a civil-rights icon while tapping into the transcendent power of supernatural theatricality. But where Hall tilts toward a feel-good Hollywoodism, Gardley achieves a mythic gravitas that does justice to his Shakespearean inspirations and fills the theater with a buzz of big ideas and big emotions.

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The Acting Company: ‘X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation’

Reviewed Thursday, Feb. 2. Final performance: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St. Running in rep with “Julius Caesar” at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4. $25; $40 for both plays. 480-644-6500,

Original story here.