During the 1960s, the United States was fraught with racial tensions as the African American Civil Rights movement pushed back against years of oppression. One of the most controversial and misremembered figures of the time, Malcolm X, gets a second life through Marcus Gardley's new play X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation
. Exploring Malcolm's life through his relationships, X
dramatizes his rise as a Civil Rights leader and his eventual, tragic fall through the lens of a fictional courtroom drama. We asked Marcus Gardley about his playwriting process and about finding justice for a man, so often vilified in history.
X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation playwright Marcus Gardley
Why did you write a play about Malcolm X at this moment in history?
Sometimes a play finds a playwright. I didn't think "Yo, write about Malcolm X, that's timely." I wish I was tapped into the pulse of the contemporary zeitgeist in that way. I am not. This play found me. Ian Belknap, the genius director of the production approached me with the idea of writing an adaptation of Julius Caesar
using the story of Malcolm X's assassination and I knew instantly that I had to do it. He is the most underrated American hero and his story needs to be told many times. He hasn't gotten the honor that his legacy deserves, so I felt that it was my responsibility to tell his story. This play is not about his death, it's about his life.
What kind of research did you do in order to create this work?
I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on. Then I re-read it. Then I watched everything that I could get my eyes on. Then I talked to people. Some people I ran into—ironically. Everyone told me "to tell the truth." I searched for truth in all of my research. Truth cannot be denied. I wanted to put people's versions of their truth on the stage. I wanted to raise the question: who was Malcolm X?
Chelsea Williams as Betty Shabazz
Can you tell us about the playwriting process? How many drafts did you write?
Oh man, I wrote so many drafts of this play that I thought for a time that I was writing in circles. I discovered that the play was in fact a circle in terms of structure. The play wanted to revisit a question, answered by many voices. The play needed to come back to this question and then ultimately give it to the audience. All in all, I wrote about 18 different drafts. And they were total rewrites. It was painful. It was a trial, but also a great adventure.
To be a playwright is to be a keen listener. Stories unravel when they unravel. One must be patient and let it unfold, and then—like the flower that finally blossoms—you get to witness the beauty of a play's nature. Then you get to write it all down and take credit for what ultimately is just an epiphany, but it's a great one. You know when you know that you know. Until then you are putting on a brave face, writing to keep from crying. You tell everybody that you are close when you have no clue as to what close even looks like, hoping for at least one line that is worthy of stage time.
Why are you interested in telling this story within a fictional framework?
I always knew this story needed to be told in another universe because that was the only way for Malcolm to truly receive the justice that he deserves. I put the play in a fictional time and in a fictional courtroom because in a realistic situation the truth would never have its day. In fact, justice was never served in the actual trial pertaining to his murder. I didn't want to revisit the actual trial because who wants to see a sham on stage? Sometimes, only in the reflections of our reality can we truly see ourselves.
Why do you think it's important for young audiences to see this play?
This is a play for everyone, especially young people. I think older generations have done a poor job of talking about the complexities of Malcolm X's character. For many older people, he is seen as a 1960s icon who was simply an angry militant. Yet young people are not turned off by his message in the same way, nor are they frightened by race and revolution. I think they have the eyes and the ears to receive Malcolm X in a different way and challenge the notion that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a loving leader and Malcolm was not. Moreover, I think young audiences can carry Malcolm's legacy and philosophy into the future as a means for positive social change in our world.
Jimonn Cole as Malcolm X and Gabriel Lawrence, William Sturdivant, N'Jameh Camara, Austin Purnell, Joshua David Robinson, and Kevis Hillocks in X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation
What conversations were had, during the rehearsal process, around the themes of the show?
There were many conversations in the rehearsal process around themes for the show—in particular we talked a lot about how the faith of Islam should be portrayed. We wanted to not only respect the beauty and themes around brotherly love but we also wanted to show how Malcolm used his faith to inspire thousands of people. We also talked a lot about betrayal and what does it mean to betray one's brother for his own good. And lastly, there were many discussions about tone. I didn't want to write a conventional play. I wanted to use humor, dance and music to delight the audience and eventually drench them in a world of deep pain.
If you had to give one piece of advice to NYC teens, what would it be?
I think young people deal with a lot of pressures these days. There are pressures to be liked, to fit in, to succeed, be the best, look the best and/or to be the most talented in various things. I think we forget to tell our young people the importance of simply being a good citizen. What does it mean to be a good person: one who cares about all people genuinely without judgment or ignorance. My advice to young people is to actively pursue the art of being a good, global citizen. The world is getting smaller. People are suffering. Life is short. All we have is each other. Why not love and defend those in need? It costs absolutely nothing and the benefits are priceless.