X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation written by Marcus Gardley, operates within two theatrical traditions. The first, which sets it within the lineage of Twelve Angry Men or To Kill A Mockingbird, uses the framework of a United States courtroom to retell a historical narrative from multiple points of view. The second tradition is the Afrofuturism aesthetic which combines afrocentrism, historical fiction and magical realism to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.
Gardley’s drama is centered in an imagined court proceeding between Betty Shabazz and The Nation of Islam. Both sides of the case are investigating the question who is responsible for the death of Malcolm X? Yet this is no ordinary court setting; it is dramatic, humorous, musical and includes the appearance of ghosts, a shoe-shine man and Billie Holiday to magically revisit the circuitous life of Muslim leader el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, more famously known as Malcolm X.
The strength of Gardley’s creative choice to blend the real with the surreal is that it offsets the dismal reality of a known history. Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, and 53 years later there is still no consensus on who was responsible for his assassination. Gardley uses the ambiguity of this history to imagine a new world, a liminal space where audiences are able, perhaps for the first time, to chronicle the hidden narratives of Betty Shabazz (the wife of Malcolm X), Louis X (the head of the Nation of Islam who is the lead defense on behalf of The Nation), Elijah Muhammad (former head of The Nation of Islam) and Brother Eugene (a friend of Malcolm’s who becomes an FBI informant). The strength of this theatrical event is in these supporting narratives. These characters offer testimonial accounts often more labyrinthine than the center stage story of Malcolm X. These characters love Malcolm X as a partner, friend, leader and brother yet their complicity in his death is apparent as X grows into an international persona who can no longer be contained by either religion or loyalty to those closest to him.
The weakness of Gardley’s piece is in fact the same historical ambiguity that offers the opportunity to retell this story in a new universe. While the real world may be messy and frequently interrupted, sometimes the power of art is its ability to resolve a tragedy within the imagination of the playwright. Instead, Gardley chooses to leave the audience guessing at his underlying thesis. Is it simply to resurrect the mysteriousness of Malcolm X’s death? Is it to implicate The Nation of Islam? Or is it to provide a space of justice for Betty Shabazz that is unattainable in the real world? The play does not clearly answer any of the questions it raises nor does it develop its characters to the level of valid intricacy that allows an audience member to draw a clear and informed conclusion.
It is surprising to see how righteous and idyllic the character of Betty Shabazz (played by Roslyn Ruff) is at the close of the piece. For a woman whose husband was murdered, leaving her to provide for small children on her own, she is remarkably forgiving in her choice to not read the list of names Malcolm X left in his coat pocket. This list, according to the play, contained the names of men he presumed would kill him if he died. He was assassinated prior to reading the names out loud. A more feminist reading would have allowed Betty to express both her love and respect for Allah as the ultimate Judge who will punish the assassins and allow her to reveal her complicated position as a Black Muslim woman living at the center of the Black struggle for equality in America. Making Shabazz a bipartisan righteous hero removes a layer of authenticity and avoids an opportunity to truly develop the full agency of her character within the drama.The trauma and grief she would have carried in her body should not be oversimplified. This is the moment when Gardley’s creative choices come into question.
X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation is beautifully produced. The set mimics the rotunda style of a Roman senate with audiences seated within the courtroom action. Under the direction of Ian Belknap, the music and choreography are stunning, captivating visceral senses for the entire duration of the play. The performance dramatizes Muslim prayer with music, movement and stepping (a form of percussive dance in which the participant’s entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, and hand claps.). The Acting Company is known for developing some of America’s best young actors and continues to do so in this production. Jimonn Cole portrays a believable and steadfast Malcolm X. Joshua David Robinson gives a Tony award-worthy performance as Brother Eugene X, a friend of Malcolm X who becomes an FBI informant. Tatiana Wechsler, in multiple minor roles such as the stenographer and a secretary, offers her voice in a major way with powerful harmonies throughout the piece that easily transport audiences from their seats to another time and space.
If you want to know who is responsible for the murder of Malcolm X, you will have to dive into the history books and make your own educated guess; Gardley will not help you figure that out. If you are interested in reflecting on complicity, power, and religion within the context of Malcolm X’s life, X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation will begin to draw out those themes for you. The production is timely in our current political climate when we are all trying to figure out what side of history we want to be on.
X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation runs to February 18. More production info can be found here.