X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation

Theater, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation
Photograph: Courtesy T. Charles Erickson

Theater review by Regina Robbins 

For decades, many have suspected that the leaders of the Nation of Islam, with whom Malcolm X came to prominence and from whom he had parted ways, orchestrated his 1965 assassination. Marcus Gardley’s X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation comes down firmly on the “Yes, they did” side. This courtroom fantasia depicts the inner workings of the Nation and the power struggles and personal grudges that may have led to Malcolm’s murder; his widow, Betty Shabazz (Roslyn Ruff), is the righteous prosecutor, determined to get cosmic justice for her late husband.

X offers a compelling trip back in time, and we never forget how high the stakes are, even during tender domestic scenes between Betty and Malcolm (Jimonn Cole). Ian Belknap directs an excellent ensemble; J.D. Mollison is a standout as the clever and eloquent Louis X (known today as Louis Farrakhan). Parallels to Julius Caesar are overt, with Louis as a bow-tied Cassius and Shabazz as a steely, dignified Mark Antony. But ultimately Gardley expends a lot of effort to convince us of something that most people who have been paying attention already assumed was the case. As an evocation of a not-so-distant past when even Martin Luther King Jr. was considered radical, the play is gripping and effective. But X is not the shocking exposé it seems to want to be.

Theatre at St. Clements (Off Broadway). By Marcus Gardley. Directed by Ian Belknap. With Roslyn Ruff, J.D. Mollison, Jimonn Cole. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.

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