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Acting Company Extends X: OR, BETTY SHABAZZ V. THE NATION


Acting Company Extends X: OR, BETTY SHABAZZ V. THE NATION

In response to popular demand, The Acting Company (Ian Belknap, Artistic Director; Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, Executive Director) extends their acclaimed production of playwright/poet Marcus Gardley's X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation through February 25, 2018. Coinciding with African Heritage Month, the Ian Belknap-directed play deepens our understanding of one of America's most complex, compelling historical figures, and explores the tumultuous landscape of ideology and activism in the 1960s.

The cast includes beloved actress Roslyn Ruff (who won an OBIE for her performance in Signature Theatre's Seven Guitars) as Betty Shabazz, Jimonn Cole (Crossroads Theatre's A Raisin in the Sun) as Malcolm X, Harriet D. Foy, Kevis Hillocks, Cedric Mays, J.D. Mollison (Les Miserables), Austin Purnell (12 Years a Slave), Joshua David Robinson, William Sturdivant, and Tatiana Wechsler.

In X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, Gardley, described by Hilton Als in the New Yorker as "the heir to Garcia Lorca, Pirandello and Tennessee Williams," combines the lyricism of imagined realities with the sharp edges and gaping omissions of history. Here, he situates the story in a liminal space, a caustically playful, theatricalized courtroom that exists somewhere "between reality and the tomb," with 30 audience members also seated onstage. In this space, a chorus can break out into fragments of Julius Caesar, a stenographer can morph into Billie Holliday, and the courtroom itself can transform as fluidly as memories, into a Mosque bathroom, an FBI interrogation room, or Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz's home, where the couple slow dances at the precipice of tragedy.

In X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, witnesses give testimonies that bleed into flashbacks, and the play, blurring the real and the half-remembered and giving voice to subjective truths, pieces together its version of the events leading up to the day of Malcolm X's assassination at Washington Heights' Audubon Ballroom. Shabazz prosecutes Malcolm X's former ally Louis X (inspired by now-Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan), whom she adamantly felt was involved in the assassination plot against her husband. He resists her interpretation, calling upon his own witnesses, and instead casting suspicion upon the FBI and NYPD, for whom Malcolm X's bodyguard Eugene Roberts was an informant. Gardley's play, in its courtroom limbo setting, examines the growing adversity between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, the constricting weight of white supremacist society, and the potentials of the behemoth institutions that uphold it to distort any story.

The play hinges on the recollections of the widowed Shabazz, in the traumatic aftermath of the assassination. (Left to raise six children alone, she eventually went on to earn a doctorate degree in higher education administration, and become the Director of Institutional Advancement and Public Affairs at Brooklyn's Medgar Evers College.) With Betty Shabazz's memories weaving the story together, X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation centralizes the experience and voice of a figure who had to fight from within the margins of the margins. As one secretary character in the play puts it, "We're women, secretaries, Negroes, and we're Muslim. If there is a low on the totem pole, put us there or better yet put us under the pole. No one can see us anyway. We're whispers." In Gardley's play, such "whispers" are actually booming presences, as Shabazz vehemently seeks justice. Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz's daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, writes in The Daily Beast, "Unfortunately.... the legacy of Malcolm X was too often subject to unlawful, untruthful, and unfair reporting... My mother accomplished a great deal in her life but what I will always remember most is her unwavering determination to protect her husband's legacy from distortion."

Staged in Spring 2017 by The Acting Company at the New Victory Theater, in repertory with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Gardley's vital Caesar-based take on the assassination of Malcolm X garnered considerable critical praise, with Elisabeth Vincentelli writing in the New York Times that it brings "the feuds that roiled the radical black-liberation movement of the 1960s to vivid life."

Addressing the cast after seeing the production in Spring 2017, Ilyasah Shabazz said, "Much like Hamilton, and making Hamilton contemporary, you guys made Malcolm, and this whole human rights question and struggle and challenge, relevant and very contemporary."

"Sometimes a play finds a playwright," Gardley told the New Victory in a conversation in conjunction with the play's run at the theater in March 2017. "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... 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? 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." X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation provides both the story we think we know and illuminating details that have seldom been shared-about questions still unanswered. Through the accounts of these characters, however, what is gained is not a clear portrait of the assassination, but of the towering, world-altering life it tragically ended.

Belknap speaks of the Shakespearean influence here, saying that X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, like Caesar, draws on the "idea that you can reclaim the present by looking at the past. Hopefully [X] generates a comprehensive conversation around issues like violence, race, religion." But they're both ultimately "about two people that were so definitely loved, and did so much good, and were assassinated because they were good." The production realizes The Acting Company's belief that-in these challenging times for the arts, and for the country-it has never been more important to bring theater to communities that will benefit from its unique power to explore humanity and help us to better understand our world.

Ticketing and Schedule

X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nationnowruns through February 25, 2018, at New York's Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 W 46th Street (between 9th and 10th Ave). Tickets can be purchased at or ordered by phone at866-811-4111.

About Marcus Gardley

Marcus Gardley is a multiple award-winning poet and playwright from West Oakland, California, whose short play Desire Quenched by Touch premiered in The Acting Company's 2015-16 season. The New Yorker describes Gardley as "the heir to Garcia Lorca, Pirandello and Tennessee Williams." His play The House That Will Not Stand (Berkeley Rep, Yale Rep, London's Tricycle, New York Theater Workshop (upcoming)) received the 2014 Glickman Award and was a finalist for the 2015 Kennedy Prize. He was the 2013 USA James Baldwin Fellow and the 2011 PEN Laura Pels Award winner for mid-career playwright. His play The Gospel of Lovingkindness (Victory Gardens Theater) won the 2014 BTAA award for best play/playwright. Every Tongue Confess (Arena Stage, starring Phylicia Rashad, directed by Kenny Leon) was the recipient of the Edgerton New Play Award and was nominated for the Steinberg New Play Award and the Charles MacArthur Award for Best Play. His musical On The Levee (Lincoln Center) was nominated for 11 Audelco Awards, including Outstanding Playwright. Gardley holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and is a member of New Dramatists, The Dramatists Guild and the Lark Play Development Center.

About The Acting Company

Founded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley, The Acting Company (Ian Belknap, Artistic Director; Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, Executive Director) is "the major touring classical theater in the United States" (The New York Times) and the only professional repertory company dedicated to the development of classical actors. The Company has reached 4 million people in 48 states and 10 foreign countries with its productions and education programs, and has helped to launch the careers of some 400 actors, including Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Rainn Wilson, Jesse L. Martin, Keith David, Frances Conroy, David Ogden Stiers, Harriet Harris, David Schramm, Jeffrey Wright and Hamish Linklater. Over a dozen commissioned new works and adaptations include plays by Lynn Nottage, Tony Kushner, John Guare, David Mamet, Beth Henley, Rebecca Gilman, Maria Irene Fornes, William Finn, Ntozake Shange, and more. The Company received a special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2003 for its contributions to the American theater.

Funding Credits

Major production support for Marcus Gardley's X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation is provided by The Roy Cockrum Foundation, The Morris & Alma Schapiro Fund, The Howard Gilman Foundation and numerous other generous individual and institutional supporters.

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