Will Power’s Provocative Detroit Red Deserves All Of The High Accolade It Engenders

Detroit Red examines Malcolm X’s formative years in Boston during the 1940s. Will Power (above) imaginatively evokes the anger and the dreadful psychological foundations that severed as the underpinnings of the future spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The plays is running at Emerson’s Paramount Theater until Feb. 16th

By Kevin C. Peterson

etroit Red, Will Power’s provocative play about the dreadfully formative youth of Malcolm X, is making its world premier at Boston’s Paramount Theater, (running until February 16). The performance is deserving of all the hype and accolade being attributed to it.

Structurally, Detroit Red is a bildungsroman, a lugubrious saga depicting the ethical and internal journey of Malcolm X as a teenager. The play depicts those years as tumultuous and painfully tell of how Detroit Red responded to the tormenting features of his early life — the break up his family in the aftermath of his father’s murder, his mother’s mental dissolution, but also, especially, the marginalization he experienced as a black male during those woebegone years since Civil War post-reconstructionalism and the emergence of Jim Crow terrorism. The result is an affectively written and staged work.

Detroit Red is filtered through using film montages as an on-stage overlay device during parts of the performance. Larger-than-life video images are projected on to a screen while characters continue their paces on stage. The results give homage to the avant-garde and surrealist theather movements.

Detroit Red explores the intersectionality of race, poverty, white supremacy and personal religious formation. (Photo Credit: Emerson Theater)

Malcom’s struggle with aspects of black civil society, — especially the black church and those who live on the “hill” in Roxbury — are highlighted in the play as the source of his excoriating critique of the black bourgeois in Boston, a critique that would emerge fully during his later years as religious activist.

Detroit Red was an ideological scion of his parents and their devotion to the Pan Africanist, Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Garveyism openly rejected white supremacy. Glimpses of this afrocentrism is portrayed in the young Malcolm on stage.

Detroit Red is carried by three gifted actors: Eric Berryman, Bronte England-Nelson and Edwin Lee Gibson.

Eric Berryman (right) evokes the tragic dimension of Detroit Red, a play about Malcolm X in Boston. (Photo Credit: ArtsEmerson)

Berryman plays Malcolm with a nuanced and smoldering intensity that give foreboding glimpses of the guise into which he would emerge in the post-Boston years. Berryman’s portrayal is sulfurous, depicting Malcolm as no less than a moral monster who traded as a pimp, a drug pusher, a misanthrope whose motivations are transported even by willingness to murder.

Gibson gives the play centering gravitas as he takes on multiple roles with clarity. He portrays the character of Shorty, which is a composition of many distinct rogue friends Malcolm travelled with in Roxbury in the 1940s. Gibson also plays Redd Foxx, the famed comedian, whom Malcom knew through his back-and-forth encounters between Boston and New York.

England-Nelson, too, plays multiple roles adeptly — as men and women. As Sophia she is reminiscence of the same character played in Spike Lee’s version of Malcolm X. She emanates vivacity and sickening bile of white liberal guilt.

Directed ably by Lee Sunday Evans, Detroit Red is tighly controlled and intelligently stated. Evans’ direction offers sparse staging and well-framed soliloquies that require undistracted attention from the audience.

Will Power has given the theater a piece of work that functions as a quality art-as-history lesson. The play glistens and gives witness to an aspect of an iconic figure we all thought we knew well.

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

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