Dr. Ilyasah Shabazz during marathon reading, Sunday, Oct. 29, at Metropolitan Opera House (Jason Ponterotto photo)

On Sunday, the Metropolitan Opera House presented an 18-hour marathon reading of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley,” before their premiere of Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.”

The event was free and open to the public; the book was read aloud in its entirety by various performers, scholars, students, and more. It began at 6 a.m. and ran  through midnight, on the Grand Tier. The readers went up to the stage for their sections, projecting the blunt and forceful speech from the famous autobiography throughout the theater house. 

Readers included performers from the opera. 

One of the readers was Dr. Ilyasah Shabazz, the third eldest of Malcolm and Dr. Betty Shabazz’s six daughters. Shabazz read multiple paragraphs from Chapter 11 of the book, “Saved,” where Malcolm discusses his transformation toward the Nation of Islam and undergoes a self-education and awakening.

“It was brilliant for the Met to do this, to have this sort of communal storytelling for adults, for their children,” Shabazz said about the event.

Some of the performers from the opera who read included 12-year-old actress Scarlett Diviney, who said she was in the middle of reading Malcolm’s autobiography. She said she thinks of Malcolm similarly to fellow liberation figure and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.

“He really did so much for everyone in the world,” Diviney said about Malcolm.

Leah Hawkins, a soprano performer who also read, is portraying both Malcolm X’s wife, the late educator and racial justice advocate Dr. Betty Shabazz, as well as his mother, Louise Little, in the opera. Hawkins, a soprano, said she was determined to do both of these characters justice. 

“I want to make sure I portray them in a way that is complementary to who they were and how they made Malcolm into the man that he was,” Hawkins said. “It’s been an honor to explore that.”

Hawkins recently performed with the Met as a soloist in “Requiem’s Dream” and “Porgy and Bess.” She said the opera about Malcolm’s story deserves to be told on the grand stage, despite any possible opposition. 

“It’s important that we do these kinds of stories,” Hawkins said. “There are going to be other stories on this stage that we tell that people are not going to like, but that’s our duty as artists, in art…to bring those things to light.”

“Sometimes we have to be a little uncomfortable to learn and grow,” Hawkins added.

“X” will premiere on Nov. 3, marking the first time the opera has arrived at The Met.  

The opera was first conceived in the 1980s by family members Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Davis, brother Christopher Davis, and cousin Thulani Davis. Anthony led as composer while Christopher, an actor and director, provided the story, and scholar Thulani served as librettist. Workshops for the opera took place in 1984 and 1985 at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia before the production debuted at the New York City Opera in 1986. 

Thulani, along with the Elevator Repair Service theater company, and George Scott helped organize the reading event. 

Robert O’Hara, the Tony-nominated director of “Slave Play” is leading this production this time. He said this latest presentation includes Afro-futuristic elements connecting Malcolm X to some of the major issues affecting society today.

“I wanted to tell a story of someone walking in Malcolm X’s shoes, who had the wherewithal of knowledge of there’s still police brutality, there’s still blatant racism and systemic racism, there’s still the prison industrial system, and there is still human rights injustice,” O’Hara said. “I’m embedding all of that information into this production.”

O’Hara says that he told the Met upon being brought on that they must earn the right to be able to tell this story about Malcolm, and he shared what that looks like.

“The way you earn the right to do a Malcolm X opera, after not doing this work with centralizing Black and brown bodies for a century and a half, is the way you interact, and talk about it and treat the people in the opera and the outreach,” O’Hara explained. “Opening up the doors and reading the words of Malcolm X over the entire day is a tribute to his life and to his struggle, the struggle for freedom.”

O’Hara also took part in the reading. “Putting that language into the space is important,” O’Hara said about the event.More information about the opera can be found at the Met website at www.metopera.org.

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