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X: or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation

Marcus Gardley imagines a trial to set the record straight on the controversial black leader.

Jimonn Cole plays Malcolm X in Marcus Gardley's X: or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, directed by Ian Belknap, for the Acting Company at Theatre at St. Clement's.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

A lot of people wanted Malcolm X dead. It wasn't just the K.K.K. and the alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies (the F.B.I., C.I.A., and N.Y.P.D.). By the last year of his life, it was also his former brothers in the Nation of Islam, the black nationalist movement he left in 1964 in order to forge a broader coalition of civil rights activists. A year later, he was assassinated.

Marcus Gardley exhumes the corpse of intrigue in X: or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, laying the facts out with the precision of a forensic scientist and the verve of an old man telling ghost stories around a fire. It's an unexpected and fascinating combination, and it really works in this production from the Acting Company, now showing at Theatre at St. Clement's following an acclaimed New York run and tour last year. If you missed it the first time around, don't let it slip away again. This is an opportunity to better understand a man who not only reflects America's pain, but its possibilities.

X: or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation takes place in a courtroom between reality and the tomb.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

Malcolm X can be an elusive figure. Was he a revolutionary black separatist? A calculating political operator? A devout Muslim? A deeply private family man? Gardley succeeds in presenting multiple sides of Malcolm X through competing testimony in "a courtroom between reality and the tomb." The chief prosecutor is Betty Shabazz (Roslyn Ruff), who intends to prove that the Nation of Islam conspired to murder her husband. Answering the charge is Louis X (J.D. Mollison), better known as Farrakhan. Like a good defense attorney, he understands that he doesn't really need to exonerate his organization, just cast doubt — an easy task when the deceased had as many enemies as Malcolm X.

Gardley packs a lot of information into two hours and 15 minutes with a script that is simultaneously hearty and efficient. A scene depicting Malcolm (Jimonn Cole) traveling to Arizona to meet with the three secretaries that N.O.I. leader Elijah Muhammad (William Sturdivant) impregnated and then hid away presents their overlapping testimony, noting consistencies while giving all three women distinct perspectives. Director Ian Belknap blocks this scene with cinematic clarity, so that we can almost visualize the jump cuts. At the same time, X is unapologetically theatrical in its use of music, dance, and smoothly unencumbered staging.

Lee Savage's kiva set easily conjures a courtroom while also allowing us to picture a variety of other locations. Mary Louise Geiger's subtle and effective lighting not only transforms the space, but sets the tone. Costume designer Candice Donnelly is able to convey telling details in the sober black and dark grey typical of N.O.I. members: Naturally, Louis's suit is striped and double-breasted.

J.D. Mollison plays Louis X in X: or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

The production is slick, but not nearly as much as Mollison's portrayal of Louis. With a smile as shellacked as his hair, Mollison speaks softly as he takes a scalpel to Betty's case, knifing through the memory of his one-time mentor. Ruff maintains a quiet dignity throughout, even as her cross-examinations begins to resemble a shark circling its prey. Her tender yet insistent scenes with Cole depict a genuine marriage of equals. Cole is commanding and magnetic as Malcolm, delivering a depth of character that is central to this story.

The acting is superb in the supporting roles as well. Sturdivant is cantankerous as the self-styled prophet and patriarch, Elijah Muhammad. Kevis Hillocks gives a heartbreaking performance as Malcolm's brother, Wilbert, while Joshua David Robinson is both funny and tragic as bodyguard Eugene X.

Everyone in the cast savors Gardley's richly poetic yet undeniably snappy language: "I'm sure the sound of your voice is heavenly to you," the Judge (a severe Harriett D. Foy) reprimands Louis, "but for the rest of us it feels like we're in hell with gasoline drawers on." While you might not expect a play about Malcolm X to be funny, this one regularly is.

Jimonn Cole plays Malcolm X, and Roslyn Ruff plays Betty Shabazz in X: or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

Of course, we never imagine Malcolm X to be funny or doubtful or depressed or loving. "All you remember about me is my anger," Malcolm says, looking directly at the audience. But by all accounts, the Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) changed him: After seeing people of all shades and nations peacefully coexisting there, he could no longer reconcile his politics with his faith, so the latter won out. It is the cruelest irony that just as he was turning away from hate, he was violently gunned down. With intelligence and sensitivity, X gives Malcolm the robust reconsideration he deserves.