By RYAN EVENS
(WARRENSBURG, Mo., digitalBURG) — When I walked into the Highlander Theatre, the first thing that struck me was the size of the audience. When one hears that an acting troupe from New York is coming to grace the Highlander, one expects a full house. The seated crowd that greeted me Saturday, Feb. 25, paled in comparison to even a matinée viewing of a play cast here in Warrensburg. If New York’s prestigious The Acting Company is used to a bigger turnout, acting unbothered was the other performance of the night.
The Acting Company brought to the Highlander’s stage “X, or: Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation,” a story written by Marcus Gardley centered around a fictional court case to decide the guilt of the men who had Malcolm X killed, and those who executed his murder.
The set design was minimal. Wide staggered platforms in the middle toward the rear, and two sets of short bleachers to the left and right only provided places for the characters and audience members respectively, to sit. Everything but two flags were black; the flags hung in the background, the one on the left a crescent moon and star associated with Islam, the one on the right, a black and light-gray American flag.
The set was draped in muted black tones, but the setting was colored well enough by the narrative so there was never any confusion as to what was taking place. The Acting Company proved that some rafters can become a courtroom, a courtroom can become a ballroom and a ballroom can become a morgue. Some actors became gunmen, a man became a myth and, later in the night, a seated audience became a standing ovation.
Whenever the audience began to find themselves overwhelmed in historical significance, they were comforted by some good, old-fashioned, well-written humor. Fans of the movie “Friday” will delight in hearing an ensemble of larger-than-life characters pause to collectively exclaim, “Damn!” when the honorable Elijah Muhammad is revealed to have fathered 19 kids. Who wouldn’t?
Even in intense moments while the characters are arguing their case to save what could be their innocence, their criminal record or even their human souls, they aren’t above throwing a petty jab at another character here and there, to which the recipient may call out, “objection!” and judge Justice may intervene and cast down a few quips of her own.
I found that this all served to bring the story closer to those watching, and appreciated that the play didn’t take itself too seriously. Despite being educational and – given it was performed three days after the anniversary of Malcolm X’s death – topical. The writing and cast performances never let it stop being an enjoyable experience for the audience, especially given the audience’s role in the play itself.
From a basis of fiction, the true story is told with a deft hand. Gardley toys with the fourth wall to give the characters what history could not: a chance to defend themselves. To do so they use humor, they use drama, they use the audience. Whatever they use, they use it well. This story about a court case where the audience is jury, the witnesses are respectively real, fiction, sensationalized members of Malcolm’s story, and the judge is Justice with a capital J sitting hijabed and high above us all at the top of the rear platforms where she could look down on her subjects and audience.
The production was grounded in humor in the way its characters make the story and its message accessible to the audience. The dialogue makes it clear to the audience that even a man with as much gravitas as Malcolm X (played by Jimmon Cole) is still a man, and a man is angry, a man is happy, a man commands respect and, as Betty Shabazz proves in a rare moment of private intimacy, a man is ticklish.
The characters each have their own genuine motivations and act on them consistent with what that character is personally capable of. Given the minimalism of the play in general, the characterization of the key figures came out almost exclusively through dialogue.
That dialogue was clear and concise and was projected well by every member of the cast except for Shabazz (played by Chelsea Williams) whose voice didn’t quite carry as well as her cast mates’. Once or twice an actor tripped on the lines, but not enough to throw off the other members of the conversation or distract from what they were saying.
The involvement of the cast members, directly or indirectly, in the attempt on Malcolm’s life plays into the feeling of drama masterfully with a choreographed step routine providing a loud, intense rhythm while Malcolm hacks and writhes on the floor just before the intermission. The volume of their stomps grows and the tempo increases until there is a flash of light followed by total darkness while the audience is left wondering if our hero is only fated to survive the first half of the two-hour performance. The ambiguity leaves the audience in an interesting mix of suspense and confusion.
The audience participation aspect of the play expertly aided the dialogue in getting the point across that Shabazz’s desire for justice does not exist in a vacuum. Like William Sturdivant’s character the omniscient shoeshine and watch salesman asks the audience after claiming to have actual time for sale, “Will you define the times? Or are you for sale?”
When the lights come on and it comes time for the jury, played by the audience, to determine the guilt or innocence of the historic gunmen we consider the shoeshiner’s question. While I can’t know what my fellow jurors decide, I can say with certainty that the time of 7:30 p.m. Saturday night was defined by a quality performance given by a skilled cast.