Staging of civil rights leader’s life examines complex personality from many sides
Malcolm X was a complex man, his life a microcosm of America’s struggle with race, power and class. The story of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz/Malcolm Little has been documented in the theater, in award-winning books and on film since his assassination in 1965.
Norbert Davidson, a playwright and English professor at Southern University at New Orleans, delivers a multifaceted vision in “El Hajj Malik: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, opening Friday at 8 p.m.
“I found that I could use the narrative of Malcolm X, the story of his life, to talk about the emotions and sensibilities that black Americans had during the first half of the 20th century,” Davidson said. “The idea that I had when I started was very simple: actors without names would come on stage and they would spend the next two hours building a composite, a portrait of Malcolm.”
He wanted male and female actors alike to have an opportunity to play Malcolm.
“I view Malcolm as ‘Everyman.’ He is all of us and all of us are some part of him,” Davidson said. “The idea I rejected when I was working on this was to have one actor play Malcolm.”
The stage production was a 45-year creative journey which grew out of an acting class exercise when Davidson was a graduate student at Stanford University, working on his master’s of fine arts degree.
The instructor was reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and asked students to improvise scenes from the book. Davidson was the only black actor. He wanted the effort to have structure and say more about the black experience.
The play was given a run in a New Orleans theater workshop in 1967 and was taken back to Stanford for additional revision and staging in the spring of 1968.
“El Hajj” has been performed hundreds of times at colleges across the country since that time, and has had runs in Latin America, the Caribbean, West Africa, Germany, Norway and other parts of Europe.
“I hope (the audience) recognizes the rhythms that black life employs,” Davidson said.
Anthony Bean, who is directing the play, views Malcolm through a slightly different prism.
“If we ever needed Malcolm, we need him now,” Bean said, citing the current negative political climate in America.
“(This country) still has not grappled with the race problem. African-American males are filled with self-hatred and are so quick to kill each other because we’ve never gotten over the fact that white men ruled us. We weren’t able to protect our women and our children. We’ve dropped the ball on that (issue) and we need closure.”
Bean believes that Malcolm put the discussion of race “out front,” rejected assimilation and the notion of white superiority.
“The mere fact that he stood up and spoke (his mind), that was unheard of,” Bean said. “Whites didn’t know how to take Malcolm.”
Karen Celestan is a writer, cultural administrator and educator living in New Orleans. She can be reached at Karen@mosaicliterary.com