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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York’s theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we’re passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

During the 1960s, the United States was fraught with racial tensions as the African American Civil Rights movement pushed back against years of oppression. One of the most controversial and misremembered figures of the time, Malcolm X, gets a second life through Marcus Gardley's new play X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation. Exploring Malcolm's life through his relationships, X dramatizes his rise as a Civil Rights leader and his eventual, tragic fall through the lens of a fictional courtroom drama. We asked Marcus Gardley about his playwriting process and about finding justice for a man, so often vilified in history.

 

Marcus Gardley X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation playwright Marcus Gardley
Why did you write a play about Malcolm X at this moment in history?
Sometimes a play finds a playwright. I didn't think "Yo, write about Malcolm X, that's timely." I wish I was tapped into the pulse of the contemporary zeitgeist in that way. I am not. This play found me. 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. He hasn't gotten the honor that his legacy deserves, so I felt that it was my responsibility to tell his story. This play is not about his death, it's about his life.

What kind of research did you do in order to create this work?
I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on. Then I re-read it. Then I watched everything that I could get my eyes on. Then I talked to people. Some people I ran into—ironically. Everyone told me "to tell the truth." 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?
Betty Shabazz Chelsea Williams as Betty Shabazz


Can you tell us about the playwriting process? How many drafts did you write?
Oh man, I wrote so many drafts of this play that I thought for a time that I was writing in circles. I discovered that the play was in fact a circle in terms of structure. The play wanted to revisit a question, answered by many voices. The play needed to come back to this question and then ultimately give it to the audience. All in all, I wrote about 18 different drafts. And they were total rewrites. It was painful. It was a trial, but also a great adventure.

To be a playwright is to be a keen listener. Stories unravel when they unravel. One must be patient and let it unfold, and then—like the flower that finally blossoms—you get to witness the beauty of a play's nature.  Then you get to write it all down and take credit for what ultimately is just an epiphany, but it's a great one. You know when you know that you know. Until then you are putting on a brave face, writing to keep from crying. You tell everybody that you are close when you have no clue as to what close even looks like, hoping for at least one line that is worthy of stage time. 

Why are you interested in telling this story within a fictional framework?
I always knew this story needed to be told in another universe because that was the only way for Malcolm to truly receive the justice that he deserves. 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.
 
Why do you think it's important for young audiences to see this play?
This is a play for everyone, especially young people. I think older generations have done a poor job of talking about the complexities of Malcolm X's character. For many older people, he is seen as a 1960s icon who was simply an angry militant. Yet young people are not turned off by his message in the same way, nor are they frightened by race and revolution. I think they have the eyes and the ears to receive Malcolm X in a different way and challenge the notion that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a loving leader and Malcolm was not. Moreover, I think young audiences can carry Malcolm's legacy and philosophy into the future as a means for positive social change in our world.

 

Malcolm X Jimonn Cole as Malcolm X and Gabriel Lawrence, William Sturdivant, N'Jameh Camara, Austin Purnell, Joshua David Robinson, and Kevis Hillocks in X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation
What conversations were had, during the rehearsal process, around the themes of the show?
There were many conversations in the rehearsal process around themes for the show—in particular we talked a lot about how the faith of Islam should be portrayed. We wanted to not only respect the beauty and themes around brotherly love but we also wanted to show how Malcolm used his faith to inspire thousands of people. We also talked a lot about betrayal and what does it mean to betray one's brother for his own good. And lastly, there were many discussions about tone. I didn't want to write a conventional play. I wanted to use humor, dance and music to delight the audience and eventually drench them in a world of deep pain. 
 
If you had to give one piece of advice to NYC teens, what would it be?
I think young people deal with a lot of pressures these days. There are pressures to be liked, to fit in, to succeed, be the best, look the best and/or to be the most talented in various things. I think we forget to tell our young people the importance of simply being a good citizen. What does it mean to be a good person: one who cares about all people genuinely without judgment or ignorance. My advice to young people is to actively pursue the art of being a good, global citizen. The world is getting smaller. People are suffering. Life is short. All we have is each other. Why not love and defend those in need? It costs absolutely nothing and the benefits are priceless.  
 
X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation Experience the truth for yourself at X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation from March 17-25!
Posted by Beth Henderson

This interview was previously seen in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Newsletter. 

The Grammy Award–winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus is gearing up for the New York premiere of Aging Magician right here at The New Victory Theater! The creative masterpiece of composer Paola Prestini and librettist/performer Rinde Eckert, Aging Magician is a composite of sonic and visual elements that paints an allegory on time, youth and the peculiar magic of ordinary life, and, perhaps, the ordinary magic of a peculiar life.

Accompanied by the Attacca Quartet, Aging Magician moves us along with Harold from the surgical repair of a timepiece to the magic show of time itself, lives and deaths, appearances and disappearances. We asked composer Paola Prestini and director Julian Crouch about what to expect from its New York debut. 
 

 

Paola Prestini Paola Prestini
Can you walk us through Harold’s journey? What is it that makes him so interesting?

JC: Basically Harold is writing a book about an aging magician who, in turn, is searching for a young boy to pass his knowledge on to. Harold takes a physical journey which follows the F train to Coney Island but simultaneously through his memories.

Are there any specific sources of inspiration for Aging Magician?

PP: I was listening to Triplets of Belleville, and a wide roster of influences: music from Tunisia, folk music from Mexico, some of the grand musicals from the 40-50’s...and of course all the operatic work I love!

What can audiences expect from Aging Magician and from the character Harold?

PP: Audiences can expect an interdisciplinary journey of music, theater, opera and puppetry led by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus into the life of our ordinary and wonderful lead, Harold.

What was your (Julian and Paola’s) collaboration with each other–and Rinde–like?

PP: We worked together on concept, story, and we have our ebb and flow. For example, with Rinde, we’ve gone back and forth—where sometime I write music and he fills in text. Julian is exquisitely sensitive to music, and he understands structure innately, so he often comments and helps on that end. 
 

 

Julian Crouch Julian Crouch
JC: As far as the writing goes, Paola and Rinde do the hard work (music and libretto) while I act as a kind of dramaturg, focusing mainly on theatrical structure. As director and co-designer, I am also responsible for the staging and the visual cohesion of the piece with collaborators Mark Stewart (instrument designer/sculptor), Amy Rubin (co-designer) and Josh Higgason (projection and lighting design).

What was designing for Aging Magician like compared to your other work? 

JC: To be honest, every piece of work has its own character. However, the main joy of Aging Magician and what makes it unusual for me is the opportunity to take advantage of a conducted chorus, not just as a musical element but also as mass image generator.

What does the chorus represent in Aging Magician?

PP: The chorus was inspired by the gondolier Charon the Ferryman, who crosses the souls across the river Styx. The chorus ushers, cajoles and helps Harold on this ultimate journey of a lifetime. 
 

 

The Puppetry in Aging Magician Choristers from Brooklyn Youth Chorus in a moment of puppetry with Harold, portrayed by Aging Magician librettist Rinde Eckert
Julian, your work often features puppetry or live animation. Does the show have any puppetry?

JC: There nothing in this show that someone would call a conventional puppet. But certainly objects and materials are manipulated using puppetry skills. So puppetry, but no puppets. 

What is the most challenging aspect of working together on Aging Magician

JC: Coordination of calendars…We are all busy people. Other than that, just the usual challenge of artists trying to create an extraordinary piece.

PP: I loved it all. The challenges, as always, are the time each discipline takes and making sure everyone’s process is respected. I couldn’t ask for a more extraordinary cast of characters and collaborators.
 
New Victory Thumb Experience the peculiar magic of Aging Magician today!
Posted by Beth Henderson
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