Slain Black liberation and civil rights activist Malcolm X may finally get his due in his hometown thanks to an opera about him going up Nov. 4 and 6 at the Orpheum Theater.
When Opera Omaha learned two-plus years ago that Detroit Opera planned a revival of the Anthony Davis (composer) and Thulani Davis (librettist) work, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” it asked to participate.
“Detroit welcomed us as a co-producer, which means opera companies pool resources to build something bigger than either could do by itself,” said Opera Omaha General Director Roger Weitz.
“X” made a splash with its 1986 New York world premiere, getting occasional re-mountings elsewhere, but Weitz said “generally speaking it hasn’t had a major national push.” Until now.
“Several prominent opera leaders made notice of that and felt this was an excellent time for this excellent piece to be back in the national spotlight,” Weitz said. “Three more major opera companies – the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Seattle Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago – joined this co-production consortium.”
“I think all of that points to the worthiness and timeliness of the piece. It’s been gone for far too long,” he said, adding that it’s return feels right in this Black Lives Matter and inclusivity reckoning.
The new production, directed by Tony Award nominee Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play”) and conducted by American contemporary music leader Gil Rose, premiered May 22 in Detroit. Omaha’s the second stop on a 2022-2023 tour.
Weitz believes it’s only appropriate this work about Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha in 1925, be produced on his home turf.
“There’s a lot of American operas about important historical, political figures, so absolutely there should be a Malcolm X opera and it absolutely should be performed here,” he said. “It’s absolutely a dream project for us to be able to share a wonderful piece of art about one of Omaha’s most famous citizens right here in this community and do so with the best and brightest collaborators. The creative team is absolutely on the pulse of culture and storytelling in this country.”
Weitz attended the opening with leaders of Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation (MXMF) as guests of Detroit Opera. MXMF features a visitors center and grounds on the birth site of its namesake. (Read Leo Biga’s 2019 story about MXMF and Board Director Leo Louis II) The organization is planning to present cultural-educational programs in conjunction with “X.”
The Detroit experience confirmed for Weitz the work’s importance.
“I’m very excited about the direction and the music,” he said. “I love the way Anthony Davis pulls in different music idioms spanning the lifetime of Malcolm X in such ingenious ways.”
Composer Davis, a renowned jazz pianist, discovered he and Malcolm X shared jazz influences, which are expressed in the opera. Known for interpreting political subjects, Davis earned the Pulitzer Prize for the 2018 opera “The Central Park Five” about an infamous miscarriage of justice.
Davis has a history with Opera Omaha. It commissioned his “Wakonda’s Dream” about another iconic Nebraska figure, Standing Bear. It made its 2007 world premiere in Omaha.
His brother Christopher Davis, a novelist and playwright, wrote the story for “X.”
Cousin Thulani Davis wrote the libretto. She’s a noted playwright, dramaturg, journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She and Anthony collaborated on the 1997 opera “Amistad.”
The director, O’Hara, is also an award-winning playwright (“Insurrection: Holding History,” “Antebellum,” “BootyCandy,” “Barbecue”).
Weitz commends the production’s “wonderful cast,” which will be largely the same as it was in Detroit. A notable exception is baritone Adam Richardson, who will sing the part of Malcolm X in Omaha. “He’s a tremendous talent,” Weitz said.
“X” is finding new life in a woke climate embracing Black stories by Black creatives on Broadway and in Hollywood. This trend extends to Omaha’s arts-culture scene, in which Black content and artists are gaining unprecedented traction. Paralleling this are efforts to finally have Malcolm X elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame. A campaign led by MXMF has made the case for decades.
Andrea Joy Pearson, Opera Omaha’s director of belonging and inclusion, advocated for his election before a recent Hall of Fame Commission hearing.
“I feel very impacted by the life Malcolm X lived and the legacy he left behind,” she said. “When I think of his life I think of three things being very prominent: Self-love, self-determination and empowerment.”
She believes that with the opera coming here on the eve of the Hall of Fame selecting finalists, the stars are aligned to bring Malcolm X the recognition missing in his hometown.
“It feels really big,” she said.
For Pearson, the opera well captures X’s evolutionary and inspirational journey. “It’s a beautiful work. It speaks to American history,” she said. “I think it can bring about a greater level of awareness of what Malcolm X’s life was really about. You see a legacy of someone who started from nothing, transformed to meet the needs of the moment, then changed into someone who was not only able to captivate audiences but to inspire people to a point that they created change in their own lives, spaces and communities.”
The opera’s creators took pains portraying the leader in his full humanity, warts and all, “rather than as some mythological figure,” said O’Hara. He believes X’’s own “evolution” from street hustler and convict to charismatic activist capable of “galvanizing audiences” offers a “powerful message” about personal transformation.
“X” is seen by its producing team as a gateway for generating greater understanding of its protagonist’s teachings. Instead of a straight-line bio, the story is told in vignettes that abstract and telescope his life to create “an X experience,” said O’Hara.
Malcolm X’s ideologies permeate the work. While some can be “tough, challenging,” Weitz said, “the opera does a wonderful job of getting to Malcolm X’s central message around human rights for all people. It’s a very uplifting, inclusive message.”
The music, words, staging inexorably pull this tragic hero to meet an inevitable end.
The opera’s considered prescient for showing how much of what Malcolm X championed is still struggling to be realized today and how his teachings remain a relevant guide for change.
Pearson’s proud Opera Omaha is bringing his philosophy and this work to a national audience. “We’re giving new voice, new life, new vibrancy to this story, to this life that was lived,” she said. “We’re celebrating it.”
Staging it in Omaha, she said, means Malcolm X is getting a posthumous homecoming. “It’s special that we’re doing it in Malcolm X’s birthplace,” Pearson said. “Nowhere else has that connection.”
From the perspective of MXMF Executive Director JoAnna LeFlore-Ejike, the opera is “really a good opportunity for people to learn about Malcolm X.”
“We really want to engage different audiences – the creative community, youths, Black folks, history buffs. We’re looking forward to bringing those groups together through programs,” she said. “I’m really excited about that.”
LeFlore-Ejike sees the opera as a conduit to connect everyone from die-hard aficionados and devotees to novices to everybody in between.
“Everybody in between is the flavor Malcolm would have preferred to reach because they are the ones who are often ignored and who relate to Malcolm the most. Healthy alignments is just what we at the Malcolm X center want to be a part of,” she said.
MXMF and Opera Omaha expect to connect to new audiences.
“I do hope this is an opportunity for both organizations to introduce each other’s audiences to each other and raise awareness and appreciation for Malcolm X’s legacy,” Weitz said.
Malcolm X’s Black liberation theologies are central in the opera and clearly resonate with this new era of Black enfranchisement. “It brings up a lot of things to the current conversation around social justice,” LeFlore-Ejike said, “but there’s also a nod to Afrofuturism.”
“Nothing is dramatized to the point of disbelief or concern,” she said. “Everything is thoughtful in its presentation, even down to the wardrobe depicting the clothes of the time. My favorite part is the incorporation of dancers throughout who represent a collective spirit of the times.”
“X” also offers an opportunity to help dismantle opera’s elitist white European strictures and to elevate new voices, faces and stories, Pearson said. “That’s what I want opera to be about. I want opera to speak to the lives of people today, to the history of American culture. I want people to see themselves, their family, their culture represented and speaking to them in a new way. “
“X,” she said, provides a mirror for Black audiences “to feel more seen, more heard, more recognized, more valued.”
Though it has a tragic end, Pearson and LeFlore-Ejike say viewers are left with a feeling of possibility, not limitation, resilience, not defeat for not only the future of the Black Experience but the broader human experience.
Performances are 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 4 and 2 p.m. on Nov. 6. Visit www.operaomaha.org/season-tickets for more information.