X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X

Music by Anthony Davis, libretto by Thulani Davis, story by Christopher Davis
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall

Leah Hawkins (Louise Little, centre) with Ensemble members (from left) Olivia Johnson, Ellaina Lewis, Ibidunni Ojikutu, and Chantelle Grant Credit: Philip Newton
Dancer Cordé Young Credit: Sunny Martini
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X, in blue) and Joshua Stewart (Street, in orange plaid) Credit: Philip Newton
Rex Walker (Young Malcolm) Credit: Philip Newton
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X) Credit: Philip Newton
Jace Johnson (Young Malcolm) surrounded by dancers Credit: Sunny Martini
The cast of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X; projection design by Yee Eun Nam Credit: Philip Newton
Allison Pohl (Social Worker) Credit: Sunny Martini
Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm X, front centre) with the cast Credit: Philip Newton
Rex Walker (Young Malcolm) and Joshua Stewart (Street) Credit: Philip Newton
Rex Walker (Young Malcolm) and Ronnita Miller (Ella) Credit: Sunny Martini
Joshua Stewart (Elijah Muhammad) with members of the Ensemble Credit: Philip Newton
Members of the Ensemble Credit: Philip Newton

Seattle Opera has done the operatic world of the West Coast a great favour in bringing X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X to McCaw Hall as part of its 60th season with all three of the opera's creators present. This is a powerful work that focuses on one of the great figures of African-American liberation as Malcolm X grew from country boy to a streetwise kid in growing up in Black Boston to the minister of Allah that assisted Elijah Muhammed (leader of the Nation of Islam) following an arrest due to an robbery of a wealthy home and, finally, his assassination.

Thus, this serves as a double story; it is both a coming of age story for Malcolm himself played as an adult by Kenneth Kellogg and as Young Malcom, the role is shared by Rex Walker (the performance I saw) and Jace Johnson on alternating nights. I can’t speak to Johnson’s performance, but Rex Walker was a delight as both a singer and dancer.

Walker has a big (for his age) treble and has his moves down as he is passed between four dancers who represent (at different points of the opera) the spirit of Africa itself and the inspiration for Marcus Garvey, not a character in the opera but very much as inspiration for its characters, with his Return to Africa and Freedom rhetoric which so shaped the history of African-Americans in the period; later, those dancers become other figures: the religious energy between the members of Malcolm X’s temple and, at the climax of the opera, the stand-ins for African-Americans who have been murdered in white supremacists over the decades.

A stunning and difficult moment in the opera comes with the projection of the names of those who have been murdered in US culture. The opera’s story by Christopher Davis pulls no punches in showing the impact of white racism on the vivid black culture depicted through Anthony Davis’s music and Thulani Davis's libretto. Reginald (Malcom’s brother) was effective as the older brother trying to raise up his younger brother following his father’s murder by a streercar operator who simply refused to stop.

What wonderful music we got to hear! Kenneth Kellogg (Malcolm) has a rich bass voice which is full and able to fill the large house of McCaw Hall at over 2,900 seats; he also has a commanding presence and has sung some of the bigger bass roles in more traditional operas. Joshua Stewart played both Street, a worldly wise hustler in the street, like Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, though Street is not nearly as visibly corrupt and realistic—being on the street is a way to survive, though X offers other alternatives. Stewart’s other role is the increasingly elderly Elijah Muhammad; both roles are well sung, but the physical differences between the two roles due to Stewart’s acting abilities made me wonder if they were two different singers. They weren’t.

All of the women did excellent work as well: especially Leah Hawkins, playing both Malcolm’s mother and wife in two different roles (Louise and Betty [Shabazz]) and Ronnita Miller’s double role of Ella (Malcolm’s older sister, who takes him in) and the Queen Mother of the Islam Nation.

Finally, all the other singers filled out a very strong cast, pulling off a variety of roles, sometimes doubling as called for by the composer, including a social worker and a reporter (Allison Pohl) and Chad DeMaris with a strong lyric tenor as a cop and a reporter. The Seattle Symphony does its usual strong performance under the direction of Kazeem Abdullah, and the very able direction was that of Robert O’Hara. Many of these were Seattle Opera debuts.

Finally, the set and production were first rate: a structure seemingly based on the curves of the Guggenheim Museum in New York was also the location for Yee Eun Nam’s projections which reminded us always of what the story had to say: African Americans, once slaves, are always, at every moment, at risk for their very lives in a deeply racist US, during Malcom X's life, and in today's still racially divided society.

Reviewer: Keith Dorwick

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