“El Hajj Malik” opens with a lynching and ends with an assassination.
In between, it touches on the too-brief life and times of Malcolm X, the intellectual figure and ever-evolving human whose philosophy was inseparable from the violent history out of which it emerged.
The powerful verse play by N.R. Davidson, which opened Friday in a riveting production from Ujima Theatre in the Main Street Cabaret, is titled for the name the late civil rights leader adopted toward the end of his life. In poetry and song, it charts his entire life and career, from the moment his father was dragged into the street and murdered by Klansmen to the day he was assassinated in New York City at the age of 39.
The play, written in 1967 as part of an improvisational workshop at Stanford University, was an important early part of Ujima’s life.
In introducing the play, Ujima founder and artistic director Lorna C. Hill introduced the play as “the autobiography of Malcolm X, with a few cute things thrown in.”
“We’d like to remind you of how little has changed, and how Malcolm X was the absolute best example of an American,” Hill said.
When the opening strains of Billie Holiday’s famous rendition of “Strange Fruit” washed over the crowd, it was clear there wasn’t going to be anything cute about the evening. In darkness, the crowd listens to that entire song, letting the awful words sink in before the lights come up.
When they do, the first words of dialogue we hear are just as devastating, as is the terrible story they set up: “My earliest memories are of the Klan,” he says, later making a powerful indictment against “a society that crushes people, then penalizes them for not standing up under the weight.”
We watch that awful episode and the effect it had on young Malcolm Little, and then we watch him take that feeling with him to Boston and later to Harlem and later to jail. It’s there that he discovers the radical separatist philosophy of Elijah Muhammad, which he then broadcasts to the masses before parting ways with the Nation of Islam to form a more inclusive vision that makes space for white people in the ongoing quest for black liberation. Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam angered many of its members and, it is believed, led to his assassination.
As devised theater pieces go, “El Hajj Malik” is one of the better examples of the form. Through accessible verse and the occasional song, it sails through the title character’s life in highly stylized episodes that each illuminate another dimension of his complex mind and spirituality. It lingers too long on the civil rights leader’s time as a petty crook, and on the drug-addled musings that he and his contemporaries engaged in while living in Boston and in Harlem. But otherwise, it charges ahead from one episode to the next at a healthy clip, infusing the story with enough poetry and music to make it feel grand and timeless rather than merely didactic.
The gifted ensemble cast takes turns speaking Malcolm’s lines, slyly trying to one-up each other in the process. Standout performances come from Zoë Viola Scruggs, Brian J. Brown, Preach Freedom and Shanntina Moore, each of whom lends their own studied take on Malcolm’s pride, sensitivity and eloquence.
Hill’s direction is characteristically meticulous and smart, leading seamlessly from one scene to the next, expertly blending verse with movement and song, and ultimately imbuing the entire evening with a sense of inevitability.
For many, Malcolm X remains an enigmatic character, or worse, a personality understood from only one of his many dimensions. This revival, timely not only because of Black History Month but because of the renewed national conversation about violence against black Americans, helps to paint a more accurate picture.
3.5 stars (out of four)
What: “El Hajj Malik”
When: Through March 6
Presented by: Ujima Theatre
Where: Main Street Cabaret, 672 Main St.
Tickets: $15 to $25
Info: 281-0093 or ujimacoinc.org