Distillations of the life and legacy of Malcolm X, the essential meaning of his brief stay among us, have appeared in nearly every conceivable format, image, and genre. He has been the luminous subject of a biopic, several documentaries and biographies, dissertations, reams of poetry, rap recording samples, and countless essays of fact and fiction. It was perhaps only a matter of time before his furious passage would be the subject of an opera, and sometimes even twice in the capable hands of the Davis family: Anthony, the composer; Christopher, the storyteller; and their cousin Thulani, the librettist.
Their second iteration of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” premiered last Friday at the Met with a fresh veneer since its debut in 1986.
In one interview, Thulani said the production, which began in Detroit under the steady and imaginative direction of Robert O’Hara, had been trimmed a bit, although at nearly four hours, you wonder how and where. The performance was spearheaded by Kazem Abdullah, the conductor, with stellar moments from Will Liverman as Malcolm; Leah Hawkins doubling as Malcolm’s mother, Louise, and his wife, Betty; and the extraordinary Victor Ryan Robertson as both Elijah Muhammad and Street, Malcolm’s sidekick during the Roxbury days.
Capturing Malcolm’s dynamic days, no matter that they only encompassed 39 years, can be a daunting task, but the Davis clan and Abdullah parsed them well, with an extensive highlight on Malcolm’s tutelage under Elijah.
The production was accompanied by an array of brilliant montages of light that hovered over the stage; a nimble and tireless ensemble of dancers embellishing the dramatic episodes; and a variety of sounds, from shades of spirituals, gospel, dollops of jazz and rap, down to the final gunshots.
As in the film version of Malcolm’s life, the production gives short shrift to 1964, arguably the most eventful year in his life, particularly his travel abroad and meetings with a coterie of famous leaders. Certainly, the opera showcased his hajj to Mecca, but it slowed the opera to a standstill, notwithstanding the dazzling chandeliers dangling over the set.
While the music was at times lush and passionate, more opportunities from the embedded jazz ensemble would have been refreshing, with a little more blues nuance. This would have enhanced Malcolm’s Harlem years and some of his musical escapades with such notables as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Regrettably, there was no love song or intimate moments between Malcolm and Betty, and only Street’s “Shoot your Shot!” is a vocal clip with more than passing resonance.
Malcolm’s early years were vividly recounted, particularly the arrival of “KKK X” and his father’s violent death, as well as the influence of Marcus Garvey on their nationalistic outlook. A similar scenario or two could have been devoted to Malcolm’s creation of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity after he departed from the Nation of Islam.
Unlike “Porgy and Bess,” there were no unforgettable melodies you might later hum or whistle, no recitative or soliloquy that was quotable, except for the passages where Thulani’s poetry had intimations of Sterling Brown’s “Old Lem.”
Comparisons, of course, are often odious, and to expect the optics in “X” to match those of Spike Lee’s film, particularly when you have Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in starring roles, is wishful thinking.
In short, Malcolm’s odyssey may still not have received the specifics where his charisma was undeniable, but almost to the point of distraction—and your eyes had to be quick to read the busy transcriptions that flashed across the ceiling of the production, but his command of the zeitgeist was unmistakable. And was that the hovering cosmic mothership in the montages that Elijah forecast, radiating from scene to scene?
The opera has a month-long stay at the Met, more than enough time for folks to compare their memories of a man who, with each year, acquires increasingly mythic dimensions; a veritable John Henry or High John the Conqueror.
If this production fails to satisfy or deliver the legend of your approximations, don’t worry: Something more about him is on the horizon—“Malcolm X: The Broadway Musical”?