What do Julius Caesar and Malcolm X have in common? More than you might think.
During a visit to MU’s Rhynsburger Theater last month, the Acting Company of New York City told the stories of both men in two back-to-back performances on Feb. 18 and 19. Known as “Caesar/X,” the series pairs Marcus Gardley’s new play “X: Or the Nation vs Betty Shabazz” with the Shakespearean classic “Julius Caesar.” Both tell the stories of powerful men who were assassinated by those who knew them best.
“With Julius Caesar and with Malcolm X you have figures who were way more complex than history has allowed them to be defined as,” actor Austin Pernell said.
Pernell plays ten different characters in both plays. He said he changes his hat, glasses, voice and posture to move from one character to the next.
“There’s a lot of choices I have to make that are very specific so people know who they’re looking at,” he said.
All ten characters on tour perform in both plays.
“We’ve got an all black ensemble,” actor Joshua David Robinson said. “Especially for the Shakespeare piece, that’s not something that you see often.”
Robinson plays Eugene Robertson and Dr. King in “X” and Casca in “Julius Caesar.”
“I’d say that both plays are about power and about how people use it for destructive ends,” he said. “They’re also about ambition and how ambition can sort of cause an entire state to fall.”
Interwoven with musical numbers and jumps back in time, “X” centers around a courtroom where Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X, puts the Nation of Islam on trial for his assassination. Built on a backdrop of 1960s’ activism, the play invites audience participation and even seats some audience members onstage. Robinson thinks the play explores a more nuanced side of the oft vilified Malcolm X.
“Casting him as just a militant or a purely black nationalist or as a racist, it does him injustice,” he said. “I think what Malcolm stood for and what he did was essential for his time.”
He said he’s honored to be a part of telling his story and is happy that the story is being told.
And although the plays are set in the past, their themes still resonate today.
“There’s still betrayal, there’s still greed, ambition and honor,” actress Tatiana Wechsler said as she put on make-up. “I think watching different people rise into power, it strikes resemblances for both. For struggles that continue, like in ‘X,’ the play is set in the 60s but there are many things that are still the same today.”
For actress N’Jameh Camara, the play “X” has a personal connection. During one scene, the character Eugene explains why he changed his last name to an X. He said that after 379 years of slavery, he changed it to take ownership of that which was taken from him.
“I have a foreign name that has Arabic roots and living in this country, I did not go by my first name for a very long time,” she said. “I had a nickname that was a whitewashed version of me.”
The Acting Company was started about 40 years ago by graduates from Julliard.
“We bring theater around the country with a focus on education with classical text,” Wechsler said. “So this year we have one classical show and one new work.”