“The real Malcolm wasn’t the one you have read about,” asserted the new play X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation Thursday night in its first few minutes.
The stage lights illuminated audience members’ contemplative faces recollecting history class narratives hung heavy and unspoken in the air. He was militant, callous, violent…
Yet X confronted these preconceptions and never stopped twisting and complicating them throughout its fascinating two-hour run. It offered unique glimpses of Malcolm (Jimonn Cole), the now well-known and often notorious black Muslim activist, through the eyes of his religious teacher, Muslim brothers, FBI workers and—as the title would suggest—his wife, Betty Shabazz (Chelsea Lee Williams).
In fact, the audience and their diverse expectations became a crucial and often utilized facet of the performance. Performers asked audience members to stand up, applaud, and ponder events as they unfolded. In this way, modern spectators react to and become part of a long dead, deeply shrouded history.
As the courtroom is called into session and accusations about Malcolm’s murder are hurled, characters even instruct the audience themselves to “be the jury.”
The result stood out as something more than mere vilification or hero worship. Instead, the play presented Malcolm as a person and not a god, icon, or warrior: passionate, but power-hungry. Ambitious, but brutally unapologetic.
Audience members saw Malcolm not only as his powerful speeches made headlines and erupted in applause, but also as he fought with his wife over money, at times too focused on the movement to realize she and his daughters were hungry and wore old, tattered clothes.
This complexity rendered it easier to relate to and root for Malcolm. As a plot to kill him slowly and masterfully revealed itself, shocked eyes refused to glance away. Perhaps most interestingly, the play shows Malcolm’s awareness of his own assassination, and his adamance to still stand in front of a vengeful crowd and impart his message.
As the booming sound effect of a shotgun reverberated in Spencer Theatre, I realized X’s most clever aspect: it had tricked me. Before attending the show, I knew Malcolm X was assassinated, but this crucial moment surprised and mystified me all the same, as if it was happening for the first time.
Furthermore, vivid and fresh reactions strengthened the impact of getting to see this historical moment recreated so authentically. Chelsea Lee Williams’ performance beautifully blended violent emotion with surprising tenderness as her character, Shabazz, wept over her husband’s lifeless body.
Only one standout weakness undermined this emotion-packed play. A time-traveling boot shiner (William Sturdivant) appeared at the beginning, middle and end of the play to awkwardly preach the play’s themes in rhyming verse.
If you read that and are thinking…what?, all I can say is yes, it was bizarre. In a play that already enforces its themes— martyrdom, religious hypocrisy and legacy— so naturally and powerfully, this role feels over-the-top and like a ploy for a convenient ending. However, this flaw lies with the writing, not Sturdivant’s acting, which shines throughout his portrayal of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm’s religious teacher.
Overall, Thursday’s performance of X felt especially poignant in the current political climate. It demands audience members ask themselves hard-hitting questions: Can a political figure stand in as God? Can non-violent revolution really be effective? Are those who don’t fight for equality, but also don’t actively oppress, just as guilty as blatant racists?
And both ironically and importantly, as Black History Month unwinds, it provokes audience members to consider: Why haven’t I heard about this side of Malcolm X before?