Detroit Opera Presents X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X

(Photo: Right, Director Robert O’Hara)

As summer heats up, the Detroit Opera is closing its current season with an opera that will captivate audiences while telling a story of one of history’s most significant figures. X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X depicts the time-honored tale of Malcolm X coupled with the melodic sounds from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis.

Directed by Robert O’Hara and conducted by Kazem Abdullah, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X will take audiences on a historical ride. Born Malcolm Little, the opera details the rise and fall of one of history’s most influential Black men. From his early life in Lansing prison and his introduction to the Nation of Islam, the opera is told through an Afrofuturism lens with musical notes from swing, scat, and modal jazz.

“I don’t see a lot of operas that deal with Black lives and certainly Black historical lives, so that was very exciting,” says O’Hara. “Also, the music feels like no other opera that I’ve ever heard.”

With a libretto by Thulani Davis and story by Christopher Davis, Detroit Opera’s current Artist-in-Residence, Davóne Tines, will portray Malcolm X. Through his words and resounding mark on not only Black history but American history, the story of Malcolm X will be shown in a new light while remaining true to his larger than life character, triumphs, and tribulations.

“Opera presents things in a grand scale so I’m in interested in audiences seeing, on a larger scale than normal, on a futuristic scale because usually when we hear about historical figures, especially Black historical figures, we see them very in a sort of hyper-realistic venue in that it’s usually almost like a new print type of thing; it’s very black and white, it’s very factual and I think that we wanted to experience this in a sort of aspirational context and what Malcolm X’s life has to say about our future and about who we are right now,” says O’Hara.

Known as both a playwright and a director, Robert O’Hara takes directorial notes from two iconic Malcolm X quotes: “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today,” and “Armed with the knowledge of our past, we can with confidence charter a course for our future.” By sharing the truest moments of the life of Malcolm X, O’Hara can add a level of humanity to the historical figure.

“I think that one of the things that’s exciting to me about Malcolm X is that he wrote an autobiography that he left as his life story so there are things in his life story that I think we don’t normally situate inside of our heroes such as his time in jail, his time with drugs and alcohol, his time on the streets, his time as a dealer,” says O’Hara.

Hoping audiences can grasp the true message of the opera, O’Hara uses Malcolm X’s story to inspire and captivate viewers while displaying the ability to achieve success despite shortcomings.

“Everything about Malcolm would have led us to believe that he would not become a great Civil Rights leader. He also always felt that he would die early. With all of these challenges in his life; leaving school at eight, growing up poor, going to the streets and doing all of that stuff, he still rose to be an icon of not only Black history, but history itself,” says O’Hara. “I think that’s what speaks to the people of today. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your resources are. You can always do better and be better and strive for more.”

Debut in the role of Young Malcolm is metro Detroiter, Charles Dennis. Whitney Morrison will take on the roles of wife, educator, and activist Betty Shabazz and Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little.

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X performances will be held on May 14, 19, and 22 at the Detroit Opera House.

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