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Essential Info: X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation

Synopsis | Character Guide | Life of Malcolm X

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Presented in repertory, William Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR and Marcus Gardley's X: OR, BETTY SHABAZZ V. THE NATION examine two charismatic leaders who rise only to fall victim to rivalry, resentment and retribution. More information about JULIUS CAESAR may be found here.
 


Synopsis:

On the afternoon of Sunday, February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was about to deliver an address to The Nation of Islam at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. As he approached the stage, he was assassinated before a crowd of hundreds of people, including his pregnant wife, Betty Shabazz, and three of their six children.

X, Or, Betty Shabazz vs The Nation takes place in a fictitious courtroom and you, the audience, are the jury. With each witness called to the stand by Betty Shabazz (the prosecution) and Louis X (the defendant), audiences will revisit crucial moments in 1963-65 that lead up to the assassination. Told through the eyes of characters who impacted Malcolm's life—including Betty, Louis Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad and others—the play explores the tense political climate that led to the death of the influential and controversial Black Nationalist leader. An extended summary of Malcolm's history, including his role in the growth of the Nation of Islam, is below.
 



Character Guide:
Some cast members play multiple roles.

Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or the prophet

After joining the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm quickly rose to become one of the organization's most influential leaders. In 1964, following his disillusionment with the NOI and its leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm announced that his family was leaving the organization. 

Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's wife; the prosecution

Betty met Malcolm shortly after moving to New York, where she attended Malcolm's services at Temple of Islam No. 7 in Harlem. She converted to Islam in 1956, changing her surname to "X" to represent the loss of her African ancestry. Betty and Malcolm were married in 1958, and had six daughters.

Elijah Muhammad, former head of The Nation of Islam

Elijah Muhammad grew the NOI from a small fringe group into a large and complex organization that attracted controversy along with recognition. He was a mentor to Malcolm, Louis and other NOI brothers from Mosque Maryam, Temple of Islam No. 2, in Chicago.

Louis X, national representative of The Nation of Islam; the defense

Louis, whom Malcolm mentored, grew within ranks of the organization. Following Malcolm's exit from the NOI, Elijah Muhammad made Louis X the head minister of Mosque No. 7 and bestowed a holy name upon him, calling him Farrakhan.

Brother Eugene, a friend of Malcolm who accompanied him to Mecca 

Brother Eugene acted as Malcolm's head of security on his trip to Mecca. Gene was later discovered to be working with the NYPD.

Wilbert X, brother of Malcom
Mystery Man 2

Both played by the same actor

Bailiff
John Ali
Nat King Cole
Benjamin 2X
FBI Agent 2
Reporter

All played by the same actor

Stenographer
The Widow
Khadijah
News Anchor
Secretary 1
Ella Fitzgerald

All played by the same actor

Muhammad the First, son of Elijah
FBI Agent 1
Mystery Man 1

All played by the same actor

The Judge, Islamic woman
Secretary 3

Both played by the same actor

Secretary 2

Played by the same actor who portrays Betty Shabazz

Bootblack

Played by the same actor who portrays Elijah Muhammad

Halim
Mystery Man 3

Played by the same actor who portrays Brother Eugene

 

The Life of Malcolm X
From "The Malcolm X Project" at Columbia University:

 
Early Life of Malcolm X, 1925-1943
Born Malcolm Little and later also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, as the child of political activists who supported the militant black nationalist movement of Marcus Garvey. After his father's violent death and his mother's subsequent institutionalization, Malcolm was placed in foster care and for a time in a youth detention facility. He eventually moved to New York City's Harlem neighborhood in 1943, where he engaged in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery and pimping.
 
The Prison Years and Early Ministry, 1946-1955
In January 1946, Malcolm was arrested for burglary and weapons possession charges, and received a 10-year sentence in the Massachusetts prison system. While incarcerated, Malcolm's siblings introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm experienced a spiritual and intellectual epiphany. Emerging from prison in 1952 as Malcolm X, the talented and articulate young convert was soon the assistant minister of the NOI's Detroit Temple No. 1. In 1954, Malcolm X was named minister of Harlem's Temple No. 7, which he led for just short of a decade. As an itinerant spokesman for black nationalism, Malcolm X traveled constantly across the country, winning thousands of new converts to the NOI.
 
Establishing The Nation of Islam, 1955-1960
Between 1955 and 1961, Malcolm X was personally responsible for establishing more than one hundred Muslim temples or mosques throughout the U.S. As the chief public spokesperson for Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm built the NOI from a marginal sect to a spiritual organization of over 100,000. By the early 1960s, Malcolm X was a widely celebrated (and feared) public speaker. The FBI's efforts to discredit the NOI and its leaders led the agency to engage in illegal acts of wiretapping, surveillance, disruption, and harassment.
 
The National Spokesman, 1960-1962
In 1960, Malcolm X established the newspaper Muhammad Speaks, which by the end of the decade would have a national circulation of 600,000, the most widely-read black-owned newspaper in the country. However, by this time, serious divisions developed between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X was personally dismayed when it was publicly revealed that Muhammad had fathered a number of children out of wedlock, which went against the belief system of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm also chafed under the NOI's political conservatism and its refusal to support civil rights protests.
 
Departure from the NOI and Travel Abroad: 1963 - 1964
In March 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the NOI and he established the Muslim Mosque, Inc., an organization designed for former NOI members as a spirtually-based group.
 
He also made his first and only public appearance with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on March 24, 1964, when both men were in Washington, D.C., to attend the Senate's debate on the Civil Rights Bill.
 
Converting to traditional Islam, Malcolm X traveled to Africa and the Middle East, completing his spiritual hajj to Mecca in April 1964. Malcolm gained new insights into the problem of racism and returned to the United States as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
 
In June 1964, he created the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) as part of a larger proposal for a broad coalition of black activist organizations to work together to achieve social justice. He hoped to build black community empowerment through voter registration and education, economic self-sufficiency and the development of independent politics. He called upon African-Americans to transform the civil rights movement into a struggle for international human rights.
 
1965: The Final Months
Upon Malcolm's return to the United States in November 1964, death threats escalated against him and his family. In the early morning hours of February 14, 1965, his home in Elmhurst, Queens, was firebombed.
 
February 21, 1965: The Assassination and Aftermath
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. The New York Times editorialized that Malcolm was "an extraordinary and twisted man," who had utilized his "true gifts to evil purpose." Time magazine declared that the dead leader was "an unashamed demagogue" whose "gospel was hatred." But others saw Malcolm X differently. President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana sent a telegram of condolence to Malcolm's widow, saying that "your husband lived a life of dedication for human equality and dignity so that Afro-Americans and people of color everywhere may live simply as 'man.' His work in the cause of freedom will not be in vain…"



 

For interactive projects and discussion guides, try the production's Family Activity and use X: OR, BETTY SHABAZZ V. THE NATION as inspiration to discuss power, legacy and the nature of leadership. (Coming soon!)