Set in a Roman style rotunda, the play takes place in a kind of limbo in which characters from 1963 – 1965 are brought back to testify as to what they knew about the events that led up to the murder of African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 as he rose to address the Organization of African-American Unity. With Betty Shabazz (Ruff), Malcolm’s widow, as prosecuting attorney and Louis X (J.D. Mollison), head of the Nation of Islam, the trial proceeds to Malcolm’s death and the revelation as to whom his killers were.
Beginning on November 23, 1963, the trial recounts and reenacts the tumultous life of Malcolm X, also known as El Hajj Malik Shabazz. A second in command to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm goes his own way after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, causing a rift in the organization, and branding himself a traitor in their eyes. The play dramatizes Malcolm’s last meeting with his brother Wilbert, bookkeeper for NOI, his investigation of the sexual allegation against Elijah Muhammad, his trip to Mecca and his conversion to the Sunni faith, and his final meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ultimately, the investigation comes around to Brother Eugene Robertson, head of Malcolm’s security detail, who also worked as a double agent for the CIA, FBI and New York Police Department. Ultimately, the trial and the dramatization make a case for who were the conspirators who killed Malcolm X.
Aside from the trial format with Louis X dueling Betty Shabazz all along the way, the play uses elements from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (quotes from the play, the plotting of the conspirators and the naming of one of the characters as Malcolm’s Brutus, as well as a funeral oration over the body of Malcolm X) without being structured on it. We also see Malcolm as a family man with his wife and his premonition that he will be killed by an associate. The widow Betty also comes to a reconciliation and ends her revenge by the play’s conclusion.
Although director Ian Belknap has obtained trenchant performances from all of his cast, the fact that seven of the ten actors play between two and six roles each makes this complex play hard to follow: after appearing as Malcolm’s Judas, Joshua David Robinson immediately reappears as Dr. King before we even realize that the two men met. It is not always clear when actors reappear who it is they are playing at that time.
Several performances do stand out, however, from the large cast of characters. Veteran actress Roslyn Ruff grounds the play and becomes the moral compass through which we see the events. Jimonn Cole brings a great deal of gravitas to the role of Malcolm X as well as beautifully delineating his confusion and doubts. As Louis X, now known as Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, J. D. Mollison is sauve and wily. Most memorable is Robinson as the devious, deceitful, shrewd and sneaky Brother Eugene who seems to changes sides before our very eyes. Harriett D. Foy’s Judge is a quiet authoritative presence. William Sturdivant makes the small role of the Bootblack who opens each act into a bravura stage turn even though this is a device of the author.
Lee Savage’s amphitheater design in all black with its black and white flags sets the tone of a major event about to happen and the playing area is flexible enough for all of the many scenes and locations. The costumes by Candice Donnelly which are also entirely in black except for the stenographer in all white, and Brother Eugene and the FBI agents in more causal clothing reminds us of the seriousness of the occasion. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting always directs attention to where it is needed.
Marcus Gardley’s X: Or, Betty Shabazz V. The Nation is a powerful indictment of forces within a movement which help to destroy it. Performed by The Acting Company under the direction of Ian Belknap, their artistic director, the play is riveting throughout while it follows its investigation where it may. It also requires a good deal of knowledge of the events of the 1960’s which many contemporary theatergoers may not come equipped to follow it.
X: Or, Betty Shabazz V. The Nation (extended through February 25, 2018)
The Acting Company
The Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.theactingcompany.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission