A Malcolm X opera is restaged for a ‘Black Panther’ world
The costuming moves from zoot suits to puffer jackets and onto an Afrofuturist spaceship
When we think of Malcolm X, a distinct style comes to mind.
Whether it’s on the U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, the cover of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Denzel Washington’s portrayal in Malcolm X, even in airbrushed portraits on barbershop walls, Malcolm X always looks the same: He wears a dark suit with a white, button-down shirt, a skinny black tie, and a pair of American Optical Sirmont glasses, an accessory so closely identified with him that they’ve been dubbed “Malcolm X glasses.”
Now, 58 years after his death, and 37 years after Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Davis debuted X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, the opera is now at the Metropolitan Opera with director Robert O’Hara not only restaging the work but reimagining it for a modern audience.
When Malcolm X was working for the Nation of Islam or pursuing pan-Islamic connections toward the end of his life, no one was categorizing what he was doing under the rubric of Afrofuturism. That was true even in the 1980s when Davis premiered the work at New York City Opera. But now, in 2023, a post-Black Panther world, we can see the connections.
That’s why the three-hour-and-42-minute show opens with half the chorus dressed in 1930s period clothing and the other half wearing brightly colored Afrofuturist costumes as they all sing “the cost of freedom is death” underneath a silver spaceship. Malcolm X wasn’t talking about spaceships in Harlem or Detroit or in any of the cities where he helped establish new temples for the Nation. But for what he was imagining for Black people during his lifetime, he might as well have been.
It’s only by looking backward that we can find the link between Malcolm X’s imagining a better life for Black folks and Afrofuturism’s idea of an expansive Black future. And in O’Hara’s X, a large part of the reimagining is done with the help of production designer Yee Eun Nam and costume designer Dede Ayite. (O’Hara and Ayite worked together on Slave Play, where they both earned Tony nominations.)
Ayite’s costuming shows the similarity between then and now. When she and O’Hara first discussed how the characters should look on stage, they knew the key was to unlock what it meant to showcase his legacy for a modern audience. “How do we ensure it feels accessible and it doesn’t feel like an archaic idea, because it’s not,” Ayite said. “His words and his movement is important for today and it’s a movement that still exists today.”
Ayite pulled inspiration from historical photographs of Malcolm X and his family, but it was important for her to also reference the work of African designers. While Malcolm X didn’t wear traditional African dress when he emphasized the beauty and expansiveness of Black culture, Ayite saw using African pieces and references as a way to honor our lineage.
“I think of them as our griots,” she said. “The idea of honoring the past and being mindful of the present in order to think about or to experience and see the possibilities of the future. So I looked as far back as I could and then molded all of it together to form a hopefully unique idea that surrounded Malcolm’s story.”
One of the standout scenes for costuming comes at the end of Act 1 when Malcolm X, then known as Detroit Red, is arrested while dressed in a zoot suit. The suits were created by New York tailor Anthony Giliberto, who has designed suits for The Sopranos, Succession, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He was the first person Ayite thought of when she signed onto the opera.
“I said, ‘Anthony, you’ve been with me when I had no money, so I would love for you to really honor me by building Malcolm’s zoot suit, [the character] Street’s zoot suit, and the majority of the ensemble’s zoot suits,’ ” Ayite said. The Met’s Costume Shop built a few of the suits as well.
The key to bringing this part of Malcolm X’s life to the opera stage was finding different ways to capture character. There are modifications in how each suit is not only styled but worn. Ayite said the fun part was looking for fabrics.
“You know, Black people have swag and style,” she said. “It was very important for me to make sure I really honor the culture by leaning into how expressive we are through our clothing, because oftentimes that’s the tool that we have to showcase and say to the world this is who we are as a people.”
She also honored Black culture and history by connecting the past and the present, for example, with a character who has a 1970s style paired with a cape bearing African masks. “I do think we’re all of the same family and it’s important to come together to honor all of our varied pasts,” Ayite said. “It makes one beautiful picture.”
That beautiful picture also contains a lot of pain, another element that links Malcolm X’s life with the lives of the present-day audience.
“Which is why, onstage, I have a gentleman in a tailored suit pant with a button-down shirt and he has on a bulletproof vest, and then he has an oversized puffer coat, because our history is complex,” she said. “The complexity is our lived existence and I just wanted to make sure I honored the various aspects of our lives as well.”
By working in modern pieces such as the puffer coat and the vest, the opera not only refers to the struggles of urban residents who Malcolm X grew up with and then tried to help, it shows that many of the problems he wrestled with are still prevalent today. At one point, for instance, the spaceship is illuminated with the names of people killed by police.
Updating and restaging this opera, even the stage it’s taking place on — the Metropolitan Opera only staged its first opera by a Black composer in its 138-year history in 2021 — allows us not only to rethink Malcolm X’s life but how we express the link between his life and ours.
The most heartwarming part of the experience for Ayite was working with the cast and chorus. “By allowing them to see themselves and them seeing themselves allowed me to see myself right and affirmed what I do,” she said. “I’m here because I really truly want to tell stories that just help us see ourselves that help us see our fullness of who we are.”