BMOP inaugurates “As Told By…”

Davone Tines as Malcolm (photo by Kathy Wittman)
Jonathan Harris as Young Malcolm

A major lyrical event, illustrating a tumultuous journey from traumatized child to prophet of black nationalism via detours as cool cat, prisoner, hustler, scam victim and pilgrim to Mecca, can be summed up in name changes from the main character of Malcolm Little, through Malcolm X to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. In composer Anthony Davis’ unwavering tale with librettist Thulani Davis (story by Christopher Davis), the authoritarian preacher swept through a violent era (much like our own) embracing black separatism, the Back to Africa movement and grudging coexistence as evidenced by sermons, slogans, mantras, ultimatums, elevation and anger. In X – The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Davis’ musical languages ​​perfectly evoked the bubbling and charisma of the main character. According to editor G. Schirmer:

X features a dark, non-tonal palette, complex, shifting rhythmic patterns, and poignant lyricism; it is influenced by classical, popular and non-Western sources. Examples of historic African-American music, including swing, scat, modal jazz and rap, and the libretto’s emulation of contemporary literary styles, help recreate the “sound” of Malcolm’s era. Although XThe score of contains a few improvisational passages, it is constructed mainly according to traditional lyrical guidelines.

We heard a lot of rhythmic patterns; whether they are called ostinatos or grooves, they often go on for a long time and cause an almost hypnotic immersion. Some lyrical passages flew away. Religious incantation has led us to ancient temple practices. The music danced, then as guilty of its pleasures, it taught us more scholarly expressions. But I suspect the music would have been a dizzying, angry jumble if it hadn’t been grounded in the lyrics. Davis’ angular vocal lines cleverly followed the cadences of speech with brief moments approaching what passed for grand operatic arias.

At the Strand Theater in Dorchester (a few blocks from Malcolm’s Boston apartment in the 1940s), Gil Rose opened “As Told By: History, Race, and Justice on the Opera Stage” from the Boston Musical Orchestra Project , a five-year series with deep ties to Boston’s mission and history. In front of horizontal black and white projections of iconic, often violent images of John Oluwole Adekoje, the blank stage hosted 21 singers, 36 conventional orchestra players and 8 improvisers. Such was the commitment to HIP for the jazz, pop and swing ages that one often couldn’t tell how the jazzy improv band and the regular BMOP contingent overlapped. Of course, we heard echoes of West Side Story and Hair but Davis’ amalgam shone like an original, well-struck alloy.

We supported Rose’s calls for improvisational trumpeter Richard Kelly and trombonist Dave Harris. They performed memorable high and low muted riffs respectively. The overall orchestral sound filled the tired 1908 vaudeville house with satisfying tones, and the warm but not overly reverberant auditorium allowed the singers’ lyrics to project clearly, but the singers may have needed to push at times, as the Strand had no pit to attenuate the orchestral volume. Given that a massive AV contingent dominated the walkway, I suspect balance won’t be an issue during the ensuing recording, even given the sizeable stage activity with singers entering and going out. Spotlights followed the tracks and colors morphed into the general lighting, with most interactions, other than that of Elijah Muhammed, materializing in a decorative house box, occurring on the stage apron.

The potentially handsome Strand need to up their game. A single ticket taker was not enough to admit the crowd around the announced start time. The show started half an hour late and even then people continued to dribble. A test patch for paint restoration showed how beautiful the house could look in fresh clothes, but the overhanging balcony has intractable problems with sight lines. From the so-called mezzanine below we couldn’t see the surtitles and had to move to the balcony. From there, the front of the stage darkened despite the dizzying height.

Davone Tines poured himself into the character of Malcolm in a commanding and charismatic way, lofty in stature and tone, though he sometimes retained his dignity when he might have exploded in rage or wept in despair. Let’s set an intention to remain faithful to the ritualized character of a tale told in proclamations and in quasi cantillation.

In an Oedipal double cast, soprano Whitney Morrison provided the voices of both Malcolm’s mother Louis and his wife Betty. She strode through the forefront as a grieving Madonna, opera diva and blues singer of distinction. Vivid and quite disparate impressions were made by Victor Robinson as Street jiving (a Sportin’ Life homage for sure) and smooth but sinister Elijah Muhammed. His tenor instrument resonated with perfect focus and sustain.

BMOP set up a chorus that performed an essential role of amplifying the words and thoughts of the stage characters with boundless energy and clarity. And some beautiful solos came out of the group, especially during the Hajj scene where a call-and-response groove evoked the practice of an ancient temple.

We knew the show and life was about to end after extras rolled a gray music stand across the stage. Malcolm sat up, said his last salaams and waited for the ball. We heard no gunshots and no blood squirted from a firecracker…a power outage signaled the end of Malcolm’s uproar.

While he ultimately dismissed Elijah Muhammed’s claim that the devil Yakub created the tormenting white people 600 years ago, Malcolm never stopped believing his people could rise as a black nation. within a white nation. And if he hadn’t been shot (apparently) by Nation of Islam hitmen at the Audubon Ballroom in early 1965, who knows how he would have repeatedly reinvented himself…maybe to a partnership in non-violence with Martin Luther King, or perhaps in a rapprochement with Louis Farrakhan. If he had lived six more months, he might have taken the vindication of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, or he might have considered her a pap of slavers.

This X can summon a diverse packed house of over 1,000 at a neighborhood theater in Dorchester is a testament to the secure niche the 16-year-old show already occupies in the operatic canon as well as BMOP’s marketing skills and commitment towards awareness.

Kathy Wittman’s photos below show Whitney Morrison as Lucille and Beth
Victor Robertson as Elijah Muhammed and Davone Tines as Malcolm

And here is a photo of the house taken by the author. Why have all the images been stretched?