The Metropolitan Opera’s newest show, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, premiered on November 3rd, 2023 at New York’s Lincoln Center. As the title suggests, the opera explores the life and legacy of Malcolm X, and delves into the details of his life in a way no other medium can. The story, broken up into three parts, spans the revolutionary’s entire life, from childhood up until his assassination in 1965.
Malcolm X is portrayed by Will Liverman, who completes the ultimate task of accurately depicting the iconic figure. Liverman plays the role with the same raw emotion and passion that can be seen in Malcolm X himself. Alongside Liverman, Leah Hawkins performs the parts of Louise Little, Malcolm’s mother, in the first act and Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, in the remaining two acts. Hawkins’ soprano voice rings clear through the theater, bringing a tear to the eye as she reproduces the love the women in Malcolm X’s life felt so strongly for him. The two characters, draped in pastels, shine brightly through Hawkins.
The two main themes of the opera are religion and revolution. At the very end of the first act, Malcolm’s soul-stirring soliloquy explains his anger toward his situation in life: he tells the audience that it’s “you,” the system of white men, who put him there, who oppressed him, who put him down. And as he sings the lights in the audience brighten to reveal a mostly white audience. Whether or not the director meant for this irony is unknown, but the message, intended or not, certainly did not go unnoticed.
Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca also becomes a central aspect of the show. His conversion to Islam is emphasized as a core tenet of who Malcolm X was as a person. And with the conclusion of the show, Malcolm’s beliefs of a global decolonization movement are made clear. His revelation of this worldwide movement for decolonization, even within the United States itself, happens only after his trip to Africa.
Moments before the assassination of Malcolm X is depicted on stage, the names of victims of police brutality and violent racism, as well as the year of their murder, are shown on a screen arch above the stage. This is one of the most powerful moments of the show, touching on Malcolm X’s legacy and how his words are still, unfortunately, much needed today.
One aspect of Malcolm X’s political ideology that was mostly missing from the opera, however, was the discussion of violence and his views on it. In popular consciousness, Malcolm X is often pitted against Martin Luther King Jr. as two ends of a spectrum: violent resistance to peaceful resistance. While the validity of this belief should be and increasingly is questioned, the show fails to make reference to this commonly held belief—except for one instance in which Malcolm X is quoted as saying that the goals will be achieved “by any means necessary.” The quote is said without any real explanation of Malcolm X’s perspective on the use of violence in the civil rights movement, and doesn’t confront any previous notions the audience may have had about the figure. It would have helped the show to flesh out Malcolm X’s thoughts on violence within a movement and when it is and is not justified, rather than let the misconceptions of his advocacy for unchallenged violence stand.
But despite that, the show facilitates a meaningful discussion of Malcolm X’s life, his motivations, and his legacy. The production is beautifully executed, the stars evoking emotion, and the story ringing both real and important in today’s day and age. The Metropolitan Opera puts on a show that is a reflection of history, while still being relevant to modern viewers. The figure of Malcolm X is preserved in this show and, while it cannot encapsulate all aspects of him as a person, the themes presented are vital for American society right here and right now.
This article was edited by Alyssa Sawicki and Hannah Pearce.