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New Victory Theater Brings Malcolm X to Life in NYC Schools

Jimonn Cole as Malcolm X with (L to R) Tatiana Weschler, Gabriel Lawrence, N'Jameh Camara, Austin Purnell, Kevis Hillocks, Joshua David Robinson. T. Charles Erickson/The New Victory Theater

“May the court come to order, may the court come to order...”

As the voice of teaching artist Signe V. Harriday rings through the classroom, 19 students at the Manhattan International High School become quiet.

In just two days' time, they’ll be audience members at The New Victory Theater in a performance of Marcus Gardley's “X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation,” a play that takes place in a fictitious courtroom, reenacting critical moments leading up to Malcolm X’s assassination.

For many students, stepping foot in a theater will be an entirely new experience. Even hearing the name “Malcolm X” is a first for some. That’s where The New Victory Theater’s classroom workshops come in.

Teaching artists like Harriday and Julia Sirna-Frest visit schools across New York City to introduce theater to new communities. Workshops are designed to enrich students’ understanding of the show and help forge a connection between the art they see on stage with the artistry that exists in their own lives.

“What I love about this workshop is it puts the students in the driver’s seat of their own learning and exploration,” Harriday said. “It brings the legacy of Malcolm X as an active thing that we should be trying to pursue.”

Front: Chelsea Lee Williams and Joshua David Robinson. Back (L to R) Tatiana Weschler, Jimonn Cole, Austin Purnell. T Charles Erickson/The New Victory Theater

“X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation” imagines that Malcolm X’s wife gets her day in court. Betty Shabazz, portrayed by actress Chelsea Lee Williams, is the “prosecution.” From the moment she is first seen, Williams commands the stage with her passionate opening statement, claiming the Nation of Islam is responsible for her husband’s death.

The defendant, Nation of Islam leader Louis X, is played by Jonathan-David. He is not rattled by Shabbaz’s damning remarks. The first time he takes the stage he is steady and confident, smoothly weaving a new narrative for the audience, treated as the "jury," to consider.

“Please forgive me, Sister Betty if I...end up getting under your skin to peel away at the truth. But I must show you another side of your man. A side he no doubt ever showed you. The real Malcolm wasn’t the man you all have read about in the news, in books, seen in movies or on YouTube interviews. The real Malcolm was...‘little.’ We, the Nation of Islam made him larger than life. We made Malcolm, we crowned him with an X, we dressed him for success.”

What students from Manhattan International High School see onstage in many ways mirrors the role-playing they did in their classroom just days before.

During the school workshop, students split off into four groups. Each group is given an envelope containing an image of Malcolm X holding a rifle as he peers out a window. How the students characterize what is happening in the photo hinges on the role they will play in the simulated court scene.

Teaching artist Signe V. Harriday leads students through an exercise at the Manhattan International High School. Sylvia Cunningham

Assignments include representatives from the Nation of Islam to prove Malcolm was a “traitor”; FBI agents to show Malcolm was a “radical,” family members tasked with showing Malcolm was foremost a “husband and father,” and loyal followers who say Malcolm was a “leader.”

12th-grader Haggur Alruby said participating in the workshop before seeing the show helped set the stage for the professional performance, the first in her life she’d seen. She was moved to tears by the end of it.

Ahmed Abdalla, another student who took part in the workshop, was seated on stage during the performance, allowing him to zero in on the minute changes of the actors’ facial expressions.

Related: Hundreds Make Pilgrimage to Ferncliff Cemetery in Honor of Malcolm X’s Birthday

“It literally dragged us in,” Abdalla said. “We were paying attention the whole time.”

Before the workshop, Abdalla knew very little about Malcolm X. He said the pre-show exercise and performance helped to shape his perception of who the human rights activist truly was.

“I walked away feeling that he was a man who was misunderstood. His intentions were good,” Abdalla said. “From my own opinion, I think he wanted to help people.”

Students at the Manhattan International High School rehearse vignettes during a workshop led by The New Victory Theater. Sylvia Cunningham

Sirna-Frest said workshops like this teach students that theater can become a part of their lives. At the beginning of one lesson, a student tells Sirna-Frest theater isn’t for her: she saw a Shakespeare play once and didn’t like it.

As they talk more, Sirna-Frest explains theater is not just about acting. She tells the student what a director does, and by the end of the workshop, that same student stands on a chair calling out directions to her peers.

Sirna-Frest and Harriday hope to break the notion that theater is just a “really expensive ticket price.”

“Theater is not this thing for ‘those people,’” Harriday said. “It’s actually a thing for all of us.”

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