“The Life and Times of Malcolm X”: “X” Doesn’t Quite Hit the Spot

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X

Oakland Opera presents an opera by Anthony Davis.
Libretto by poet and playwright Thulani Davis.
Book by Christopher Davis,

Review by Janos Gereben: Oakland, Ca. (06/04/06)

`X’ Doesn’t Quite Hit the Spot
By Janos Gereben

There is significant difference between the artistically right and the ideologically righteous. Anthony Davis’ 1986 opera, Malcolm X, is more righteous than it is right. As heard at Oakland Opera on Sunday, with an enthusiastic audience that included the composer, this was the first staged production of Malcolm X since its New York City Opera premiere 20 years ago; there have been a number of concert and college performances around the country.

What’s righteous about Malcolm X is that it speaks of oppression, discrimination, suffering, and the search for liberation from those ugly historical forces. What’s not right about the opera is that it lacks dramatic cohesion, doesn’t make its hero anything like flesh-and-blood, and it doesn’t offer music that can stand on its own, beyond mere accompaniment.

During the 80-minute first act, music is especially sparse, “minimalist” both in the sense of quantity and denoting the musical school to which it aspires. From the opening “chopsticks” theme, a few jazzy variations lead to numbing ostinato. The 50-minute second act is much more lively musically, with free jazz variations and riffs, a couple of impressive arias.

Tiny, gutsy, innovative Oakland Opera (with a remarkable record of championing contemporary music) did spectacularly well with this production, even if on Sunday, the entire lighting design had to be scratched after a pre-performance electrical system failure. Deirdre McClure conducted, the small, uncredited orchestra played its heart out, Skye Atman and Victoria Theodore at the keyboards dazzled with their steely virtuoso performances. Chris Grady showed remarkable stamina on the trumpet. Michael Mohammed, the stage director, moved his singers well around the tiny stage.

In the title role, Joseph Wright reminded the listener of his starring role in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman the young singer performed so well recently in San Jose. With power and beauty of tone, Wright was splendid in his singing performance; he even coped well with the role dramatically – no small task, considering the alternative requirements of standing still, looking into space, or delivering fiery speeches. The text — from Thulani Davis, based on Christopher Davis’ book — is remarkable in its outbursts of poetry and realism in dialogue, but the libretto lacks over-all cohesion.

Rising like a comet (and disappearing just as fast) Duana Demus sang the role of Malcolm X’s mother, channeling her recent Lyric Opera appearance as Tosca, a fervent, striking performance. Very early in the story, the character disappears… and so does Demus, alas.

The large cast — playing many characters and serving as the chorus — did uniformly well, Darron Flagg’s Elijah Muhammed and Lori Willis’ Ella making lasting impressions.

The opera traces the life of Malcolm X in Michigan, the dual boyhood tragedies of the death of his father and the emotional collapse of his mother. There are early brushes with the law, his conversion to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, his own ministry and his breach with Elijah, his pilgrimmage to Mecca, and the finale of his assassination as a rifle is pointed at him, no shot is heard. I learned more facts about his life from the opera, but I didn’t get to know or understand him better.

The work is a rich mosaic of history, music and text hammering away at grievances and outrages, but somehow neither the music nor the text communicates directly, one on one. The relentless driving home of a few basic points reminded at least one listener of propagandistic Social Realism at worst, a less then successful Brecht play at best. Against the fact of a standing ovation at the end, at least that one listener was far from being swept away — perhaps to his loss.

While the Oakland Opera production is the West Coast premiere for the staged work, Anthony Davis’s jazz ensemble Episteme performed excerpts from it on a national tour in the 1990s, with one stop at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts.

Opens Friday, June 2nd, continues June 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, & 11th, 2006.
Tuesday, Wednesday,Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8pm.
Sunday matinees at 2pm.

Advance Tickets: $28-32 general are available online, or call 510-763-1146 between 2pm-6pm Tuesdays-Saturdays for more information.

Musical director: Deirdre McClure
Stage director: Michael Mohammed
Production director: Martin Bell

Malcolm X: Joseph Wright
Performed by: Duana Demus, Anthony Russell, Jeremy Litwin, Daron Flag, Fred Winthrop, Lori Willis, Lisa Bolin, Raina Simmons, Angela Dean Baham, Skye Atman, Jim Davis and more…..

Set design: Garrett Lowe

All shows are located at the Oakland Metro: 201 Broadway, Oakland, CA, 94607
Phone: 510-763-1146

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