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Seattle Opera's brilliant, winning revival of X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X

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Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Seattle Opera — Photo by Philip Newton
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Seattle Opera — Photo by Philip Newton

Music by Anthony Davis
Libretto by Thulani Davis
Story by Christopher Davis
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall, Seattle Center
Opening weekend (February 24 and 25)

McCaw Hall was packed for the opening weekend of X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X — full of excited first-timers as well as seasoned opera lovers. Though the work is three hours long, the entire audience was on its feet and cheering at the end of both performances. Instead of shouting "Bravo!" many audience members called out "Thank you! Thank you!"

The production was flawless: wonderful music, fabulous singing, and brilliant stage settings in service of a fascinating and important story. The libretto, by Thulani Davis, is one of the most beautifully simple and elegantly expressed texts you will ever hear on an opera stage, while the music, by Pulitzer Prize—winning composer Anthony Davis, added the excitement of a jazz ensemble to Seattle Opera's terrific orchestra. This show is a winner from beginning to end.

Particularly impressive were soprano Leah Hawkins (as Malcolm's mother and, later, his wife Betty Shabazz) and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller (as Malcolm's half-sister, who raises him after his mother becomes disabled). Their stentorian voices brought the love and danger surrounding him into sympathetic focus. Bass Kenneth Kellogg as Malcolm and tenor Joshua Stewart as Elijah Muhammad (and as Street, a swaggering mentor to the young Malcolm) formed the solid core of the opera, their interesting contrast of high and low voices an imaginative accent to the drama.

The relatively small ensemble of singers, actors, and dancers did a great job supplying all the additional roles and creating a real sense of a larger world as the story moves from Michigan to Boston, to Harlem, to Mecca, and back to Washington Heights, where the death of Malcolm is shown with a dramatic, symbolic use of light.

Rex Walker (Young Malcolm, Feb. 24, Mar. 3 & 9) and Leah Hawkins (Louise Little) in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Seattle Opera — Photo by Philip Newton  

Past, present, and future
The clever stage setting by Clint Ramos establishes three zones of reality. The first, a small theater stage, is a replica of the one at the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm was killed and provides a portal between past and present. The second, a large open space, represents the characters' emotional world. The third is a swirl-shaped screen overhead that supplies projections of news, photos, colors, and textures, a kind of visual chorus that illustrates the story. Stage director Robert O'Hara envisioned this third zone as a space ship, in a futuristic interpretation of the Black Star Line that Marcus Garvey imagined would transport Black people back to Africa.

Four male dancers accompany the characters and express their emotions in flowing movement. Their contribution is particularly important in Act 1, as young Malcolm lives through the racism and loneliness of his early life. This role was wonderfully sung and danced by Rex Walker and Jace Johnson, students of the Allegro Performing Arts Academy in Kent.

Anthony Davis's score is complex and sumptuous, both rhythmically and harmonically. In a recent interview about the current production of X, he said, "Rhythm drives the drama. I use rhythm as the building block. When the polyrhythms become more complex, there's rhythmic tension; when it comes together, there's release." Conductor Kazem Abdullah's masterful direction led the musicians and singers through this difficult piece without a hitch.

A fitting revival
The three-Davis team (two brothers and a cousin) were originally commissioned by the New York City Opera in 1986 to write this work two decades after Malcolm X was murdered, while his memory was still at the center of controversies swirling around his belief in racial justice "by any means necessary." Today, as time contextualizes his service to the cause, Anthony Davis reminds us that "racial tensions and inequities still haunt us," and that this production is "a new vision of the opera for a new audience, a new generation who may not have a living memory of Malcolm X." Seattle Opera's revival of this great work is a fitting contribution to the ongoing effort to make this nation live up to its allegiance to "liberty and justice for all."

Congratulations — and thank you! — to Seattle Opera for bringing this brilliant work back to the stage, where a new generation of Americans can learn more about the struggle Black citizens have had to endure to be treated as equal members of society.

Performances continue through March 9. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://seattleopera.org