By: Taylor DeVille, Associate Arts & Life Editor
“How can we move forward if we leave all that we’ve learned behind?”
This question, uttered by Malcolm X (Jimonn Cole) in award-winning poet and playwright Marcus Gardley’s new original show “X: Or, Betty Shabazz vs.The Nation,” echoed across both shows performed by The Acting Company, “X” and “Julius Caesar,” over the weekend.
A repertory company, the New York-based touring ensemble performs shows that are meant to be viewed in tandem, connected by central themes — in this case, mutiny and political turmoil.
“‘Julius Caesar’ is one of the great political plays ever written,” Acting Company Artistic Director and Towson alum Ian Belknap said. “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.”
Last year, the Company came to campus as part of a partnership the school has with Morgan State University, Bowie State University, and CCBC to workshop the commissioned piece by Gardley. Once he had a draft ready, Belknap consulted with theatre students to get their feedback.
Towson alum Kaya Potler workshopped the show last year.
“Seeing how far the show has come and seeing its importance and impact in today’s time has been phenomenal,” Potler said. “It’s been great to see that growth.”
As “X” developed, it grew into a piece that focused more on Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz (Chelsea Lee Williams), who stands trial before Judgement (N’Jameh Camara), a fantastical being, clad in a black hijab, who seems to exist outside of time. The stage is a desolate black courtroom, the only decor two black and white flags in the background — one representing the black political and religious movement of the Nation of Islam, the other the American flag.
Shabazz accused the defendants, members of the Nation of Islam, of murdering her husband. As each side tells their stories, the courtroom seamlessly transforms into various vignettes that illustrate Malcolm’s time as an influential leader in the Nation of Islam, his defection, and his assassination.
Historically, Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam while in prison around 1950. After his parole in 1952, he quickly became the public face of the Nation, being favored by then-leader Elijah Muhammad and possessing incredible oratory skill. Eventually, Malcolm defected from the Nation of Islam after becoming disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad and later altered his message to promote love and unity under the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. In February 1965, he was assassinated by three members of the Nation.
Although “X” explored Malcolm’s life, the show mixed fact and fiction. Wilbert X (Kevis Hillocks), for instance, was an amalgamation of Malcolm’s siblings. Other characters, like Louis Farrakhan, a member of the Nation and perhaps the chief antagonist, were all too real.
Although Farrakhan denied any role in Malcolm’s murder in the show, one of the character’s monologues was taken almost word for word from a speech Farrakhan gave in real life, describing how the Nation “made” Malcolm out of nothing: “Did you teach Malcolm? Did you make Malcolm? Did you clean up Malcolm? Did you put Malcolm out before the world? Was Malcolm your traitor or ours?”
In Malcolm X’s story, Belknap saw “so much” that indicated what was going to happen in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“How could we combat oppression, prejudice and slavery, which have been rampant in this country since its inception?” he said. “Malcolm chronicled so many of those things.”
The parallels between “X” and “Caesar,” the latter directed by Devin Brain, aren’t difficult to draw: two controversial figures murdered by their own brothers. Viewing “X” was possible without viewing “Caesar,” but those who didn’t attend both shows missed the allusions and symbolism.
Audience members who attended “Caesar” but not “X” might have been confused when Brutus pulled out a gun and shot Caesar to death, not realizing it was supposed to mirror Malcolm’s assassination.
Gabriel Lawrence, who played Julius Caesar and Muhammad the First and an FBI agent in “X” said that these performances weren’t “just another gig.”
“It’s an opportunity to connect with people from around the country who look differently than some of us, who look the same as some of us, and to pull the lid off of things that might be taboo,” Lawrence said.
Camara, who played Caesar’s wife Calpurnia and the Judge in “X”, described moments when audience members had connected with both her and the performances.
“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.”
For Camara and Lawrence, representation is one of the most meaningful aspects of their roles in the performances.
“The more we can do projects like this that really matter, that really resonate and can break borders and walls, we seed the question in people’s minds, ‘why isn’t there more of that?’” Camara said. “Once we plant that seed, the more that question will be answered. And the more we’ll have more of what we want to see.”
Robyn Quick, professor and chair of the Department of Theatre Arts, said that the Company employs community outreach as part of “a new model of touring that they’ve established,” to make relationships with communities over time and use theatre as a way to generate conversation.
“They really tried to make it not just a spectacle, but a thing that is inviting for conversation, which i think is why it’s important for us to have talkback conversations,” Gabriel said. “It’s one thing to create art for art’s sake, it’s another thing to create art for change.”