By: Taylor DeVille, Associate Arts & Life Editor
New York-based touring ensemble The Acting Company will perform two pieces about the rise and fall of powerful, controversial men this weekend, Friday and Saturday in the Stephens Hall Theatre.
This season, the Company commissioned award-winning playwright Marcus Gardley to write an original piece telling the story of Malcolm X, his life during and after his time in the Nation of Islam, and his assassination. They will perform the result, “X: Or, Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation,” along with Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” this weekend on Towson’s campus following a recent residency at the University.
A repertory company, The Acting Company performs shows that are meant to be viewed together as a conversation.
“‘Julius Caesar’ is one of the great political plays ever written,” Acting Company Artistic Director Ian Belknap said. “Obviously we were in an election year when we started working on the plays, and right now we’re in a transition of power, so I thought in a way it could reflect the world we live in. We could look at the past, and by looking at the past, reveal something about the present.”
A Towson alum, Belknap was driven to direct a show about Malcolm X after reading “Robert Kennedy and His Times” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., which chronicled the assassinations of Robert and John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Not quite buried in that book, but it almost felt like a footnote, was the assassination of Malcolm X,” Belknap said.
In Malcolm X’s story, Belknap saw “so much” that indicated what was going to happen in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“How could the rights of black Americans… how could there be equality?” he said. “How could there be a sense of humanity? How could we combat oppression, prejudice and slavery, which have been rampant in this country since its inception? Malcolm chronicled so many of those things.”
“Julius Caesar,” directed by Devin Brain, “provides a framework for Gardley to deepen our understanding of one of America’s most complex, compelling historical figures and explore the tumultuous landscape of ideology and activism in the 1960s,” according to Towson’s website.
Company actress N’Jameh Camara, 26, plays Caesar’s wife Calpurnia and performs as both the Secretary and the Judge, who “oversees all” and “acts as justice” in “X.”
As Calpurnia, Camara drew inspiration from contemporary sources.
“In our rendition, I’ve tried to give her some fire and some strength,” Camara said. “I’ve looked at modern day what has inspired me—just the Hillary Clintons of the world, the Jackie Kennedys of the world, the Michelle Obamas of the world.”
The Company has been doing a residency at Towson as part of a partnership the school has with Morgan State University, Bowie State University, Community College of Baltimore County and some area high schools. This week, they’ve attended theatre and history classes and held panels with the Department of Theatre Arts to discuss acting and auditioning, as well as the historical context and contemporary relevance of the shows.
Gabriel Lawrence, 36, who plays Julius Caesar and Muhammad the First, the eldest of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s 19 children in “X,” said that high school students who had not seen a theatrical performance before “felt disconnected” from the performances. After having a discussion with the students during a talkback session, Lawrence said that the students “perked up” and asked “some really great questions.”
“One of the things we do is take them through one of the monologues Malcolm has,” Lawrence said. “They get to experience the language for themselves, and pick out things that stand out to them and bring it into the context of today—how people might perceive them, and what’s going on in politics right now.”
Camara, too, described moments that audience members had connected with both her and the performances. At a bus stop in Kansas City, a group of girls who had seen Camara perform as Calpurnia excitedly asked her what hair products she used.
“As Calpurnia, I go completely natural with my afro,” Camara said. “To me it was a really cool exchange of something I stand for that they gravitated towards, and somehow I guess maybe they felt empowered in their own natural hair journey.”
In Mesa, Arizona, Camara remembered walking onstage for the first time as the Judge, who wears a hijab, in front of a school of Muslim girls.
“The whole school of girls were in hijabs, and they looked at me, and they were beaming,” Camara said. “And it clicked for me, ‘Wow, they’re seeing onstage, probably for the first time, a figure who looks like them.’”
For Camara and Lawrence, representation is one of the most meaningful aspects of their roles in the performances.
“On this journey, I’ve been encouraging students that if they want to see more of themselves [in media], they can pursue acting but they can also pursue being a producer or a casting director because we need that as well,” Camara said. “Once we continue to see [representation in] art, that then adjusts social bias.”
Camara was also excited about performing in an all black production of Julius Caesar.
“There’s a certain stigma about classical [theatrical] training in the UK versus classical training here, and I’m very proud to be with my fellow African American actors and spitting text,” she said.
Lawrence said that performing the pieces is a great way to “connect with [the] country and bring people closer together.”
Because we’ve had so many positive experiences [with the audience], we know that this isn’t it,” he said. “This is needed now. The conversation is needed now. People of all different races and political backgrounds want to talk about these things.”
“X: Or, Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation” hits the the stage Friday, March 3 at 8 p.m. in Stephens Hall Theatre, and “Julius Caesar” runs at the same time on Saturday. Tickets are available at tuboxoffice.com.