The Boston Modern Opera Project is reviving a 1985 opera about Malcolm X at the historic Strand Theatre in Boston, just a few blocks from where the Civil Rights leader lived as a teen.
“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” was also staged by the Detroit Opera in May, with future productions planned for cities including Chicago and New York. Composer Anthony Davis said he's thrilled — but not surprised — that the work he wrote decades ago is experiencing a renaissance.
“I think with what's been happening in our country post George Floyd, is a kind of reckoning with the fact that in the classical world that it hasn't done well with composers of color, particularly African American composers," Davis, 71, said from his home in San Diego."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer calls his piece a heroic, tragic odyssey. Christopher Davis, his brother, created the story. The genre-crossing music and plot line trace Malcolm X's turbulent evolution through the 1930s into the 60s — from child to street hustler to controversial Black Rights activist.
Along with a new generation of adult cast and chorus members, Davis says the Boston production needed a performer to channel the tenderness of a very young Malcolm.
“It's not really a boy soprano part like we might find in Benjamin Britten's work or something like that,” Davis recalled. “But I said, 'You need to find Michael Jackson from The Jackson 5 days — you know, 'ABC.' That's what you're looking for.'”
They found that voice in 12-year-old Jonathan Harris, a Boston Children's Chorus singer from Brockton.
“Well, that's like a really big compliment,” Harris said, “because I love The Jackson 5.”
In the opera's first act, Malcolm learns his father, a reverend and Black Nationalist, was killed by white supremacists in Michigan. His mother is traumatized, then institutionalized, and she loses custody of Malcolm. Her son's confusion and heartbreak come through in the aria, “Mamma Help Me.” Davis's cousin Thulani Davis wrote the libretto, and the composer wanted the music to convey the simple directness of a child singing.
“It creates a kind of eerie sense of suspension,” he described. “This plaintive song that he sings where you realize how alone and desolate his situation is.”
Harris picked up his character's plight.
“He's struggling with feeling abandoned, just feeling lost in general with why he was taken away, if he did anything wrong,” he said, “And he's trying to reach out to [his mother] ... but she's not there.”
On stage, the adolescent performer sits alone intoning, “Mamma help me. Mamma help me.”
“He's about my age,” Harris explained, “and so for him to have to deal with these things at so young of an age, it's really eye-opening.”
And it's emotional. Harris said he connects with the lyrics personally, especially the line, “What do I do? The teachers tell me that what's wrong with you will never be right.”
That resonates with an experience Harris himself had in first grade, “when I got the right answer, the teacher said that I wasn't right,” he remembered. “But then I figured out the teacher was wrong.”
Baritone Davóne Tines, 35, who plays the older Malcolm, sat with us during our interview and shared how something similar happened to him.
“In fifth grade, I was in an advanced math class, and I had an issue with the teacher mis-grading my tests — and I was the only black student in the class,” he said. Then speaking to Harris added, “It means a lot that both of us have had that experience, and it's exactly similar to Malcolm's experience.”
For Tines, Malcolm's formative years steeped in loss, prejudice and racial violence help us better understand his life's journey as it unfolds through the rest of the opera.
“His father being murdered and his mother essentially being driven mad — and basically every major familial male figure in Malcolm's life was killed in a racist context,” Tines said. “So it's not exactly hard to imagine how somebody who faced that sort of degradation, and also broadened their perspective to understand the broader degradation of their race, would be led to do the sort of work that Malcolm did.”
After Malcolm's father was killed, he moved to Boston to live with his sister Ella in Roxbury. In “X,” Tines powerfully delivers the adult Malcolm's enduring rage over his family's fate in an oppressive, white society. He does this while sitting in prison after being arrested for theft and before he joins the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.
Anthony Davis's “X” is the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's first in a new five-year initiative to perform and record overlooked works by Black composers that explore race and history. Others include “Harriet Tubman” by Nkeiru Okoye and Ulysses Kay's opus “Frederick Douglass.” A new commission is also on deck by local composer Jonathan Bailey Holland called, “The Bridge,” which is about Martin Luther King Jr.'s life in Boston.
The only recording of Davis's 1985 opera that existed is out of print, so Jonathan Harris is excited his voice will be part of BMOP's new recording. He's also looking forward to sharing “X's” story with other young people in the audience Friday night.
“I hope that they will want to have the same the desire to learn more about the life of Malcolm X,” Harris said, “not only as an adult, but also in his younger years.”
And, Harris added, if they're also inspired to get into opera, that would be great too.
“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” will be performed at the Strand Theatre on Friday, June 17, at 8 p.m.