ArtsEmerson’s ‘Detroit Red’: The making of Malcolm X

Eric Berryman as a young Malcolm Little in “Detroit Red.” Photo: Randall Garnick Photography

BOSTON – Before he became Malcolm X, he was something else again. And he came within a hair’s breadth of never becoming the cultural icon cut down at the age of 39, but already embedded deeply into the national consciousness.

Will Power’s new play “Detroit Red,” now being presented by Arts Emerson at the Emerson Paramount Theater chronicles the years a young Malcolm Little spent in Boston, arriving in 1940, a fatherless, grief-stricken 16-year-old from Lansing, Mich., troubled and wild.

He had lost his father, a preacher and political activist, who was murdered by white supremacists; his mother was committed to an asylum.

He arrived in Boston to live with his half-sister Ella, a country kid feeling out of place in the hustle and bustle of the city, but he immediately noticed the chasm between the middle-class Blacks like Ella, who lived on Roxbury Hill, and that of ghetto Blacks, with less money and living further down the hill.   Malcolm rejects the “Hill Negroes” who imitate whites and glorify their menial jobs and instead falls in with those at the bottom of the food chain.

Often living on the streets, he became a common street hustler, drug dealer, pimp, thief, racketeer and all-around dodgy character. He was eventually convicted of armed robbery in 1946 and after spending time at a state prison in Charlestown, he transferred to the Norfolk Penal Colony, where he honed his debating skills and learned to become a powerful speaker.  

While in prison he began his relationship with the Nation of Islam, and emerged as one of the group’s leaders, serving as its public face and strong voice for black nationalism and black empowerment before his subsequent split from the group and assassination in 1965. The investigation into his murder continues after a recent Netflix series sparked new questions.

Eric Berryman (seated) and Edwin Lee Gibson in “Detroit Red.” Photo: Randall Garnick Photography

His was a different kind of civil rights movement from that of the non-violence espoused by the  Rev. Dr. Martin  Luther King. Malcolm believed strongly that blacks did not need racial integration to be successful and that blacks should defend themselves against white aggression “by any means available,” including arms. He also extolled the virtues of a separate nation in the United States for Blacks until a new state could be created in Africa.

Eric Berryman portrays Detroit Red, who earns his name from the red dye that tints his hair and his former home in Michigan, and the city he identified with. He has energy and drive but they are unchanneled and scattershot. He has yet to discover a purpose in life and carries the burden of the anger he still feels about his parents.

Edwin Lee Gibson is his musician friend Shorty, also a native of Lansing as well as “Chicago Red,” the comic and early partner in crime who shared the same dyed hair color as Malcolm and would later gain fame as the comic Redd Foxx. They committed home break-ins and robberies  together and slept on rooftops of buildings with newspapers as their bedding.

Bronte England-Nelson portrays several other characters in Detroit Red’s orbit, including Sophia, his white mistress, and a twisted white man who makes a young Malcolm the object of sexual humiliation.

Director Lee Sunday Evans and her team of designers worked together to create a vibe that conveys the restlessness, aimlessness and undirected energy of the young Malcolm.

When sound designer and composer Justin Ellington’s work gets involved, “Detroit Red” is kind of a tone poem in its musical rhythms and style, as befitting an era when the music of a Duke Ellington might be playing out in clubs in Roxbury.

I understand that Alan Edwards’ dimmed lighting design is making a statement about how he lived in his Boston years, very much in the shadows, under cover, wary of being seen. But it does  require some heavy duty squinting at times to make out what is happening onstage.

Adam Riggs’ minimalist set allows the action to turn almost on a dime, as young Malcolm’s angry urges manifest themselves in a myriad of criminal activities.

Power was interested in exploring what there was in a younger Malcolm that allowed him to eventually transform himself and find his true calling, when so many like him who had come before and after had not been able to do it.

Power ultimately decides to give us that seminal moment, opening and closing the play with Ari Herzog’s noir style black-and-white projection that takes place in a jewelry store.

Malcolm is in the midst of a robbery, and has his gun aimed squarely at a police detective. If he had pulled the trigger, there never would have been a Malcolm X.   Rather than fire the gun, he hands it to the police officer and begins the turnaround that would spawn a cultural icon whose writings and teachings still resound today.

The ArtsEmerson production of Detroit Red.” Written by Will Power. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. Scenic and costume design by Adam Rigg. Lighting design by Alan Edwards. Sound design and original music by Justin Ellington. At the Emerson Paramount Center through Feb. 16.