Born Malcolm Little but better known as El Hajj Malik el Shabazz or Malcolm X, the black leader lived a remarkable life. He had a difficult early childhood in the Midwest and his father died (apparently murdered) when he was 6 years old. Malcolm later become a petty criminal, converted to Islam in prison and rose to lead the Nation of Islam. His life story is compellingly told in his autobiography, co-written with Alex Haley. The book is one of the inspirations behind Norbert R. Davidon’s El Hajj Malik: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, originally created in the late 1960s and currently running (with previously unused scenes) at Anthony Bean Community Theater.
Davidson chose to find everyman appeal in Malcolm’s story, which may seem odd given his extraordinary life. The seven actors and actresses all portray Malcolm in turn, as well as other important figures in his life. They wear black pants and shirts and don white opera masks to play white people. The stage is almost completely bare, except for a couple of chairs.
The first half features Malcolm’s life in vignettes, from the fear his family had of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups when he was young to his incarceration and marriage. The narrative is often delivered in verse or communal verse by the ensemble, and at times it is complemented by two musicians performing offstage. Ieasha Prime choreographed the play, and the cast effectively improvised movement, such as doing a chugging step in unison to represent a train. In the vignettes, Sean Beard stood out as the young Malcolm who moves to Boston and likes dancing in clubs and the Malcolm who realizes that whites avoid military service with excuses that never work for blacks. Dana Webb, Kevin Toy and Demitrus Rhapsody also took capable turns as Malcolm.
The second half focuses on Malcolm as a leader, and he expresses outrage at blacks fighting in a war to preserve an institutionally racist nation. He fumes over the death of four young girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church. He criticizes the bigotry of whites as well as self-defeating behavior and attitudes in black communities.
What makes the play compelling and Davidson’s approach plausible is seeing the world through Malcolm’s eyes, and hearing his completely raw and fearless description of what he sees. Young Malcolm is in a foster home when he realizes what the word “nigger” means. It’s painful, but he gains a useful insight into how racism works and the attitudes of caretakers he otherwise seems to like. In one speech, he acknowledges that he came from a place of ignorance, of being duped and having made mistakes. It’s the Malcolm who could see the world clearly (and controversially), change himself and inspire or infuriate others who speaks in Davidson’s play. Under Anthony Bean’s direction, the cast reanimates the leader in a way that makes his struggles timeless.