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Theatre in Review: X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation (The Acting. Co./Theatre at St. Clement's)

Jimonn Cole, Roslyn Ruff. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

There are three strong, striking performances at the heart of Marcus Gardley's new play, all of which are worth your attention. It's certainly no surprise how Roslyn Ruff dominates the stage; she has done it many times before. Here, she addresses her enemies in a voice that is spun sugar liberally sprinkled with bitters, her scornful sideways glances capable of annihilating a stage full of fools. It is Gardley's conceit that a trial has been convened in a kind of limbo land where Betty Shabazz is suing the Nation of Islam for murdering her husband, Malcolm X. In a play filled with dreamers, theoreticians, and true believers, she regards the world with a coolly appraising gaze that makes anything like pretense curl up and die. Even when safe in her husband's embrace, she tells him that his so-called brothers in Islam would "as soon cut your throat as kiss you on the lips." But there's real warmth in her recollection that Malcolm was "pure music; his laughter alone could swing our house like a jazz band." (Here, as elsewhere, Gardley has a nice way of turning everyday conversation into poetry.) And there's honest laughter in her comment about another wife's terrible cooking: "Mercy to glory, how do you burn rice black?" She is never to be trifled with, however. When the defense attorney tries to implicate the FBI in Malcolm's death, Betty replies, "I do believe that they tried to murder him on several occasions, and trust me, I will deal with them, but one killer one at a time." I suddenly imagined J. Edgar Hoover sitting in his office, looking very nervous, indeed.

The defense attorney, Louis X, is played by J. D. Mollison as a model of courtly behavior, stopping in the middle of a speech to show how moved he is by Malcolm's fate and wiping away tears that aren't really there. He uses the same tactics when taking part in the political jockeying around Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam. Cozying up to Elijah, who has been caught fathering a baby out of wedlock, Louis, in his most oleaginous voice, murmurs, "You have longed for more children. I can understand this, but the rest of the Nation will not. And Malcolm cannot because he is good." Indeed, he turns Elijah's dilemma to his advantage, using it to marginalize Malcolm, who has grown too independent-minded for his own good. As Louis smoothly puts it, "Imagine if all of our errors were made public...the entire Nation will fall like Rome. We must silence him to save our people, our reputations and our faith. We must do it because we love him." And when asked what "silencing" him means -- Could it involve murder? -- he is as smooth and slippery as a bottle of Vitalis hair tonic. In his sly, oblique approach, Mollison is more than a match for Ruff's quietly lethal Betty.

Even more memorable is Joshua David Robinson as the multifaceted enigma known as Brother Eugene X. A close friend of Malcolm's -- "close as crossed legs" is how he puts it -- and, for a time, the head of his security detail, he is also a drunk and a (married) closet case who, at different times, has been on the payroll of the FBI, the CIA, and the New York Police Department. He may be a double or even a triple agent -- at a certain point, he may not even be sure himself. (The FBI orders him to spy on Malcolm and his family, information that, Betty says, he shares with them. Then again, he appears to be in on at least one FBI murder plot.) As played by Robinson, his impeccably tailored look is belied by an edgy, sweaty disquiet, his hands trembling from nerves or booze or both. Consider how, when offered a box of chocolates that he suspects is poisoned, he stares, his eyes filled with fear, before casually refusing. ("I thought you were trying to watch your figure," he adds, in a weak and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at keeping Malcolm's hands off the toxic candies.)

Jimonn Cole brings plenty of natural charisma to the role of Malcolm, but he is caught in one of the evening's major weaknesses: Even in a drama loaded with flashbacks, Malcolm isn't enough of a presence, and the script never comes close to suggesting the dynamic, polarizing figure that he was. We don't get a strong enough sense of why he alarmed the FBI or what seemed so incendiary about his convictions. More damagingly, this is a courtroom drama without a verdict: Gardley provides plenty of circumstantial evidence to indict the followers of Hoover and Muhammad, but the play ends inconclusively, with the killing carried out by "Mystery Man One" and "Mystery Man Two." The play also suffers from a surfeit of theatrical devices, including an unnecessary narrator figure, The Bootblack, who comes and goes; the self-conscious use of "applause" signs after certain speeches; and the out-of-left-field insertion of Shakespearean verse, including a cocktail lounge arrangement of Sonnet #18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?").

Still, the play does an effective job of conveying the intrigue that swirled around Malcolm, and the entire cast, under the generally incisive direction of Ian Belknap, makes the most of their opportunities. (I particularly liked Harriett D. Foy as the judge, presiding over the action with Olympian impartiality.) Lee Savage's set, dominated by three bleachers -- two of which are used for audience seating -- and black-and-white flags of the United States and the Nation of Islam, is eminently suited to the proceedings, and Mary Louise Geiger's remarkably precise lighting sculpts and reshapes the stage as needed. Candice Donnelly's black-and-white costumes are well-suited to each character, despite the narrow color palette. Justin Ellington provides some very appealing incidental music in addition to a range of effects that include "bumps" at the end of various scenes and several voice-over sequences.

Even at its weakest, X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation is a gripping investigation into the life of a man whose legacy remains urgently important today; it also has plenty to say about the cost of political dissent in this country. (A brief, apocryphal encounter with Martin Luther King causes one to wonder what might have happened had both men lived.) And even when it must stop short of the available facts, the play's lively gallery of characters provides plenty of dramatic value, especially when Ruff, Mollison, and Robinson are making their urgent, savage cases. -- David Barbour

(22 January 2018)

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