X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation by Marcus Gardley is not only a portrait of Malcolm X, the optimistic and eloquent civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1965, but also of a dangerous and tumultuous time. In Gardley's play, time and place dissolve from one scene into another—a courtroom, the home of Malcolm (poignantly played by Jimmon Cole) and his wife, Betty Shabazz (Obie winner Roslyn Ruff), as well as the street; an office; and the home of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. In all the scenes Gardley focuses on a question that dominates the court: who killed Malcolm X?
The stage is sectioned off by designer Lee Savage to resemble a courtroom with audience members sitting in a gallery and playing the role of jury. Overseeing the courtroom is the regal judge (Harriet D. Foy), seated at the highest point in Savage’s tiered set. The solitary character of a bootblack and watch salesman (William Sturdivant, who also plays Elijah Muhammad) appears from time to time and gives the play a vaudevillian feel, as he interrupts the main events to comment on them in speech that combines poetic rhymes and a hustler’s patter.
When Betty accuses the Nation of Islam of killing her husband, Brother Louis X, who later renamed himself Louis Farrakhan, (J.D. Mollison) argues that it was the Nation of Islam who made Malcolm, and therefore he belonged to them, meaning they could not only inflate him but destroy him. In one scene, which exposes the irony of this idea, Malcolm is shown as a creation as he is put into a suit, the glasses are added, and then he is positioned with his finger at his temple in the iconic stance associated with the fiery orator and civil rights leader.
However, Malcolm X, formerly known as Malcolm Little, had always been a willful, innately intelligent and determined individual. Even as a street hustler who conked his hair, sold drugs and engaged in petty crimes, he was a leader in his milieu. It was in jail that he learned to read and write, and was introduced to the Nation of Islam. After being released early for good behavior, Malcolm turned his life around and became a pillar in the community of the Nation of Islam.
In Gardley’s play, the FBI look especially guilty. Brother Eugene (Joshua David Robinson brings a giddy, comic element to the character), who was assigned by the Nation of Islam to be Malcolm’s bodyguard, embodies many of the complicated issues facing black men at the time. He has a tendency to drink, but also visits a bar with “friendly” people (code word for gay). Sodomy laws made it illegal for men to engage in sexual relationships. The FBI preys on Eugene’s weaknesses (for the bottle, men and money) and enlists him to be their spy. He’s in an opportune position to garner important information in return for work, money, and favors, such as having his records expunged of any criminal activity. Eugene also gives them a critical entrée to the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, where Malcolm, preparing to speak, was assassinated.
During the court scenes, Betty wields a list that Malcolm created naming the people he thought would kill him. Although everyone looks guilty: the FBI, the Nation of Islam, Brother Eugene, and possibly the CIA, Brother Louis, who argues loyalty and friendship, appears to carry the most guilt. Gardley makes parallels to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; they are evident in the scenes in which Louis expresses his dislike for Malcolm and the need to eliminate him. When Elijah Muhammad is accused of siring children with his secretaries; a possible truth Malcolm cannot bear, Louis argues: “Imagine if all our errors were made public, the entire nation will fall like Rome.” He is Brutus to Malcolm’s Caesar. In Act III of Shakespeare’s play, Caesar sees Brutus also has a hand in his death and says “Et tu, Brutus?” Malcolm could say the same: “Et tu, Louis?”
Gardley’s play shifts the focus from Malcolm X as a powerful civil rights leader to a vulnerable man trying to hold injustice up to the light. Glimpses of this are beautifully revealed in moments between Malcolm and Betty who knows how to make him laugh (tickle him), but also senses how tired and even a little afraid he may feel. In 1966, several men from the Nation of Islam were convicted of assassinating Malcolm X, but Gardley’s play suggests that everyone, in the end, had a hand in killing him.
X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation runs through Feb. 25 at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 W. 46th St. (between 9th and 10th avenues). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays. Tickets can be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting theactingcompany.org.