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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.

Written by Leah Drayton, Spring 2017 Communications Apprentice

Throughout my life, Martin Luther King, Jr. loomed large over the history of the Civil Rights Movement. However, focusing solely on King when discussing racial inequality in America would be a mistake. Thanks to the powerful writing of Marcus Gardley in X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, our audiences have had the chance to further explore the life of another hero of the period, Malcolm X. As Malcolm X said, "The future belongs to those who prepare for it today." Here are twelve other cultural icons who seized the future by working to make their present a place of equality and education.
 
Rosa Parks Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) was an African American activist who was best known for being one of the people who resisted public transportation segregation. In 1955, a bus driver ordered Parks to move to the back of the bus to the "colored" section so a white passenger could sit in the front. Parks refused and was arrested. Her act of civil disobedience lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, one of the most important events in the Civil Rights Movement. She continued fighting for freedom until her death in 2005. In 2013, she became the first African-American woman to be honored with a statue in the National Statuary Hall. 
Muhammad Ali Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942–June 3, 2016) was a heavyweight boxing champion and an activist for civil rights. He spoke often about racial equality in America and stirred controversy when he refused to enter the draft during the Vietnam War. Ali joined the Nation of Islam after Malcolm X, and considered him to be a mentor and a friend. Ali spoke against Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11 and participated in several activist efforts such as The Longest Walk. Ali, who suffered only 5 losses in all 61 of his professional fights, was also a talented poet and a major influence in rap and hip hop. When Ali died in June 2016, he was mourned around the world.
Maya Angelou Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) is regarded as one of the best African-American writers in history, producing many award-winning poems, books, plays, television shows, and movies. She was awarded more than fifty honorary degrees. Angelou took part in some of the most important parts of civil rights history, including collaborating with Malcolm X for the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Angelou worked to raise funds in the civil rights movement, often working with other artists to support Martin Luther King’s efforts. Angelou died in 2014, while working on a new book. She was on two presidential committees, and earned the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 
Midgar Evers Medgar Evers (July 2, 1925–June 12, 1963) was a civil rights activist who sought to abolish segregation in America. He focused on voting rights, social justice and equal education at public universities. He served in the military in World War II and as a field secretary for the NAACP. When Evers was shot by a segregationist in 1963, the local hospital wouldn’t admit him at first because he was black. His death triggered numerous civil rights protests. In 2017, his home in Mississippi was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Dorothy Dandridge Dorothy Dandridge (November 9, 1922–September 8, 1965)  was an African-American dancer, singer and actress. She was lauded as one of the most beautiful actresses in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Even though she was one of the biggest stars of the time, Dandridge was no stranger to racism and frequently spoke about inequality. A Las Vegas hotel once infamously drained an entire pool because Dandridge, a black woman, dipped her toe in it. She was the first African American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Carmen Jones. Dandridge continued to perform in various roles, some of them controversial, until her tragic death at the age of 42. 
Jame Baldwin James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was a contemporary essayist, novelist, and playwright. His work focused on the psychological and gender issues of African-Americans under the strain of racism. His short story "Sonny's Blues" is one of the most praised pieces of black contemporary literature. He often discussed issues with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and wrote about their legacies. Though Baldwin died in 1987, the highly acclaimed documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, brought renewed attention to his life and legacy in 2016.
Josephine Baker Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) was one of the most glamorous African-American performers of all time. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she rejected the culture of racism in America and become a phenomenon in France. Celebrated by her many fans as the "Black Pearl," the "Bronze Venus," and the "Creole Goddess" she was the first person of African descent to star in a major motion picture. During the Civil Rights Movement, she refused to perform for segregated audiences, and wrote and gave speeches about racism. Baker, who was a global celebrity, was denied service at dozens of restaurants and hotels because of her color.  She was the only official female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. Baker died in Paris in 1975, but lives on through performances in film and television by Diana Ross, Beyonce, Sonia Rolland and more. 
Gordon Parks Gordon Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006)  was a filmmaker, director, photographer and musician during the Civil Rights movement and beyond. He was a black photography pioneer whose work was commissioned by Life and Vogue magazines. He worked for the federal government as a photojournalist and it was said of him that he used his camera "as a weapon." He photographed notable figures such as Barbra Streisand and Malcolm X, (who later asked him to be the godfather of his daughter, Qubilah Shabazz). Parks was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1988 and died in New York at age 93.
Congressional district U.S. Representative John Lewis (February 21, 1940 -) was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the 1960s. He was awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by President Barack Obama. He was extremely active in the civil rights movement, including speaking at the March on Washington and surviving a brutal attack by the KKK while taking part in the Freedom Rides. He organized and took part in numerous protests and movements and has even co-written a comic book about the Civil Rights movement, March
Eartha Kitt (January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008) was deemed the "most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles. She was born on a cotton plantation, and went on to become one of the most fascinating entertainers of her time. She spoke four languages and sang in seven. At the height of her fame, she divided her time between performing and supporting civil rights causes, and participating in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Her signature "purr" and voice defined iconic roles on Broadway and television, most famously, of Catwoman in Batman. Later in her career she continued to reach new audiences with children's projects such as The Emperor’s New Groove
Ava DuVernay (August 24, 1972 - ) was the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014 for Selma. The film tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery March to protest voting discrimination. In 2015, Mattel made a custom Barbie of DuVernay that sold out as a charity item and had to be re-released as a collector’s edition. In 2017, she became the first black woman nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film, 13th, was named after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which freed the slaves and prohibited slavery (except as punishment for a crime).
Ta-Nehisi Coates (September 30, 1975 - ) is an African-American journalist and writer, winner of the  Hillman Prize, the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and numerous other awards. His work focuses on politics, race, and class related to history. His 2015 book Between the World and Me was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Currently, he is a writer for the Marvel comic series Black Panther.
 
 
‚ÄčLeah Drayton is a student journalist, writer, artist, and a spring New Victory Communications Apprentice. She studies at Hunter College, where she double majors in Media Studies and English.  She is a Hunter Muse and Mellon Fellow, creating work inspired by botany, music and her West Indian heritage. Leah’s busy starting her own publication, Iambic,  painting 9 foot murals and memorizing Whitney Houston’s entire discography.  Leah Drayton
Posted by Beth Henderson

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
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