The Autobiography of Malcolm X (written with Alex Haley) was a best-selling account of the leader's transformation from petty criminal to an international leader advocating for social justice and an end to racial inequality. The book also inspired other writers, including New Orleans native Norbert R. Davidson Jr. Now a professor of English at Southern University at New Orleans, Davidson was a young graduate student at Stanford University in the late 1960s when he started writing El Hajj Malik: A Play about Malcolm X. Over the last four decades, El Hajj Malik has been performed around the world, including a successful run off-Broadway. On Friday, El Hajj Malik opens the season at Anthony Bean Community Theater.
"It was a disturbed time," Davidson says of the civil rights era in America, a period defined by riots in Chicago and Detroit; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy; anti-segregation protests in the South and Vietnam War protest marches in Washington D.C.
"Once I got into the writing, I realized I was trying to articulate the emotional flow of black America," Davidson says. "And I was using Malcolm X as an 'everyman' figure to get at that."
El Hajj Malik was first published in 1969 as part of New Plays from the Black Theatre: An Anthology, compiled by Ed Bullins, playwright and former minister of culture for the Black Panthers. The volume includes works from Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Charles Fuller and other writers from the highly politicized Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early '70s, which emerged shortly after the assassination of Malcolm X to give voice to artists who felt ignored by mainstream Western culture.
Despite the anthology's grouping, Davidson shrugs off any association with the Black Arts Movement — "I've never considered myself much of a joiner," he says and cites experimental German playwright Bertolt Brecht as a major influence on his unconventional approach to theater.
El Hajj Malik combines music, dance and dialogue as it follows Malcolm X's unlikely rise from criminal to leader of the nation of Islam. The play features a cast of 10 actors, five men and five women, each taking a turn as Malcolm X as the others become players in the story of his tumultuous life. Malcolm X often advocated for separatism and violence in the struggle for equal rights, and Davidson digs into the activist's polarizing approach.
"I didn't try to soften it," Davidson says. "I really didn't try to soften it, because I wanted to let the anger seep through all of the humor and singing and dancing that's involved in the show. That is just a veneer for the anger that's burning underneath, and finally it comes out once he's in prison and begins to organize his thinking. He becomes a black Muslim, and he becomes very articulate in his anger."
While much has changed in the nearly half-century since Malcolm X's death, director Anthony Bean says El Hajj Malik is more than just a historical document. Bean, who founded the Anthony Bean Community Theater and Acting School more than a decade ago, believes El Hajj Malik still has something to offer contemporary audiences.
"I did [El Hajj Malik] not because the brother's spilling out hatred," Bean says. "He's talking about a problem. Any time you look at the symptom, you call out what the problem is — and that's controversy in America."
Bean says he believes in presenting controversial works and addressing difficult subjects, and he appreciates art that can make people uncomfortable. Take Django Unchained, for example, Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti-Western tale of a freed slave taking revenge on a sadistic slave owner. Bean says he's seen it five times. Like Django, he says, El Hajj Malik puts it out there.
"There's a lot of open wounds," Bean says. "We never got closure. There's a room that has never been shut, we just put a curtain up there and say, 'Let's not talk about it.' But it is an open wound, and until we deal with it — and how to deal with it — that's the story. I think if we put it out there then we know how to deal with it."
In addition to El Hajj Malik, the 2013 season at the Anthony Bean Community Theatre includes Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson, which will complete the theater's production of Wilson's series of 10 plays chronicling African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. The season also features Spell #7 by Ntozake Shange, the gospel music comedy Sanctified, musical dramas Nu Skool/Old School and You Don't Even Know Me! and concludes in December with Langston Hughes' Black Nativity.
The season includes an array of famous, lesser-known and Bean's original works, drama and musicals, but Bean hopes audiences won't shy away from Davidson's depiction of Malcolm X.
"It's not a happy story, but it's a very dramatic story," he says. "I think it's something we all should see, those who dare."