The Making of Malcolm
X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X was a groundbreaking work when it had its world premiere at New York City Opera in 1986. With its all-Black team of creators, its realistic retelling of recent history, and its depiction of a controversial public figure, it pushed the boundaries of the art form and paved the way for dozens of subsequent works that brought present-day issues to the operatic stage. Remarkably, the minds behind X all belong to a single family: Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Anthony Davis, celebrated poet and librettist Thulani Davis, and Christopher Davis, who translated the reality of Malcolm X’s life into a theatrical story. In advance of its November 3 company premiere, the Davis trio discussed how the powerful work came to be.
How close were the three of you when you were young?
Christopher: My grandfather came from a very large generation—seven brothers and one sister. My father was the son of one of the oldest brothers, and Thulani is the daughter of one of the youngest brothers. So we’re actually second cousins.
Thulani: We grew up seeing each other on holidays and vacations occasionally. Anthony and Christopher were in Pennsylvania, but they came to visit us in Virginia once in a while. I didn’t know them well, but I got the impression that they were little geniuses. And I think my father and their parents had some kind of little competition about their smart kids. We laugh about it now, but back then I was just thinking, why do I have to be compared to these people who are from out of town that I don’t know very well?
Moving forward in time, what were you each doing in the '70s and '80s before you came together for X?
Thulani: When I came out of college, my first job was as a reporter, and then I became an editor at a Black newspaper out in California. I was living through history. I went to Angela Davis’s trial, but also, at one point they were so shorthanded that they sent me to a press conference for professional football, which I know nothing about.
Christopher: Anthony went to New York to be a musician, and I moved to California to go to drama school. While I was in California, Anthony and I reconnected with Thulani, and she and I both eventually ended up moving to New York as well. So all three of us were here by 1980.
Thulani: I worked at The Village Voice. But I was also finishing my first book of poetry and performing poetry with friends of mine. So I was accustomed to going to work and then performing on weekends. When I went to hear Anthony play jazz, I realized how good he was.
Anthony: I was also really involved in creating music for dance. That set the stage for my opera work because with opera, you’re also creating music for bodies in space, bodies in motion. Movement and drama are part of the music. At the same time, I was obsessed with mathematical structures and different kinds of simultaneous rhythmic cycles, and I was exploring South Indian music—which I had studied at Wesleyan and with a mridangam master—as well as the gamelan music of Indonesia.
Christopher: There was a whole sort of cross-pollination between dance, theater, poetry, and music that was happening in New York in those days. Tony and Thulani and I all used to hang out, seeing plays and then going to or working on the concerts that would happen at the Public afterwards. And we would kick around all kinds of ideas.
Anthony: I worked a lot with poets, actually. In the early '80s, there was this idea of a new form called choreopoems that combined music, poetry, and dance. So I worked closely with Thulani and also Ntozake Shange, Jessica Hagedorn, and a number of poets associated with Nuyorican Café.
How did you end up collaborating on an opera about the life of Malcolm X?
Christopher: In college, I took a course in African American autobiography, and one of the books we read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I called Tony when I was reading it and said, there’s so much music in here, and there’s such a parallel in the development of Malcolm’s spirituality and his journey towards Mecca with the spiritual journey of John Coltrane getting to A Love Supreme. I said, we’ve got to do a piece that brings music together with this story.
Anthony: The autobiography makes so many detailed references to the music that was around Malcolm all his life, and particularly in the Boston period. He worked in clubs and at dancehalls, and he was very specific about the music that he listened to—things like Lionel Hampton and Charlie Barnet. And then later, in the '60s, he would do his sermon on radio programs, juxtaposed with music by John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins. So I thought there was a natural connection between his evolution as a man, and also the evolution of his political thought, with the evolution of music, culminating in the revolutionary spirit of the music of the '60s.
Christopher: Opera wasn’t even on my radar, but Anthony really loved Wagner, and he immediately thought of this as something that would be an opera.
Anthony: Christopher created the story, but we needed someone to write the actual libretto. Thulani was the obvious choice because I had worked with her so much, and she’s an incredible poet. I wanted to have the lyricism and richness of language that she brings, and also her knowledge of the full history of African American poetry. In her work, she references poetry the same way I reference music, so that brought another level to what we were creating.
Thulani: When Anthony asked me about X, my immediate reaction was, wow, of course that’s an opera, and I would love to do it. I think both of us knew the partnership would work because by then we had spent a few years performing together in situations where either we were both improvising or he was improvising to something I was doing, and it always worked mood-wise. He always knew what voice I was writing in.
What was your actual collaboration on the opera like?
Anthony: Our initial idea was that the opera would have a three-act form, so that each act represented a name change. Act I is Malcolm Little becomes Detroit Red. Act II, Detroit Red becomes Malcolm X. Act III, Malcolm X becomes el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. This gave us a very neat and powerful structure, and the idea of the opera being a story of his personal transformation—not only politically, but spiritually.
Christopher: First, I started working on the story. Thulani also started working on a version of the story that she sent to us. I wanted it to be more active, so I did a complete rewrite.
Anthony: We went back and forth quite a bit. I mean, some of the music I had written first, but mostly, they worked on setting the story in words, and then I would look at the poetry. And I had the ability to edit some of the text to make it work for the music. Sometimes, Thulani’s poetry already implied a musical form.
Thulani: This is where I lucked out. You have to write in a form—you can’t write two-and-a-half hours of free verse, which is what I normally wrote. I discovered that I had a lot of fun rhyming, and I developed some of the things that are markers of my work now, like internal rhyming in the middle of lines, which makes it much more musical. I also learned that there are two things about writing a libretto that are really important, other than the arc of the drama: You are influencing the rhythms, and you are determining the diversity of the music. You’re setting when the tempo is changing and when the mood is changing. So you have to stretch yourself and offer the composer a variety of things.
From left: Christopher, Thulani, and Anthony Davis.
How did you translate such a well-known figure and such a well-known story to the operatic medium?
Christopher: Looking at the piece in three parts, I really thought of Malcolm’s influences and his worldview. So when he was young and living in New York, he had a street perspective—how you get through life. So I created a character named Street, whose job is to explain to Malcolm how to survive. Then, Elijah Muhammad comes in and presents Malcolm with an entirely different worldview, which becomes how he processes the world. And then he goes to Mecca, and the beautiful thing that Thulani incorporates into her libretto is that he is, and he realizes he is, alone. He has come up with a third worldview on his own, without a mentor. That’s the journey.
Thulani: It’s an epic journey, and the stakes are high all the time. They’re high for Malcolm, but he also raises the stakes for all those who are listening to him. He enters a much larger dialogue, not just with individuals but with the country. I was a senior in high school when Malcolm was killed, so I had my own memory of him, which was really helpful. And then I spoke with a lot of people who knew him, who were members of his organizations, who were there when he was shot. They shared anecdotes and showed me postcards he had written to them. It all helps you create a human being. You don’t use all of it, but it gives you a sense of what he was like in different circumstances.
Anthony: For me, the key was to find a musical correlative to the rhythm and pace of his speech. It was very different from Martin Luther King, for example, who was very melodic, a huge and expansive baritone voice. Malcolm was staccato, precise, and turned on a dime. And he had a sense of humor that he used in his speeches. So, in a way, an easy comparison would be to think of Martin Luther King as kind of like Coltrane, and I thought of Malcolm as more like Miles. I drew on that in using music that suggests some of Miles’s music from the late '60s, early '70s.
What was it like when the opera picked up momentum, and after several workshops and performances in smaller venues, came to New York City Opera for its official world premiere in 1986?
Christopher: It was amazing that it happened at all. It was a traditional opera, and it belonged in traditional opera houses, done by a traditional opera company. But it was 20 or 30 years ahead of its time. Did City Opera have a single Black singer on their roster? No. Did they have a single Black chorister? No. Did they have musicians who could improvise? No. All of this costs more money. But [City Opera Music Director] Christopher Keene and Beverly Sills, God bless them, decided to go for it.
Thulani: When X opened at City Opera, my aunts came from Virginia, my godmother came from New Jersey, my entire family came. It was a very fulfilling event for them because none of us had ever thought of it happening—my working on an opera, or having it done in New York City, at Lincoln Center. And I looked up, and the majority of the people in the opera house were Black. I’ve never seen that in my life. And they were buoyant. They just lifted the whole space up. It was quite amazing.
Christopher: What I also found interesting, even more than opening night, was the people who came to the performances after that, who felt they had to see it. Cecil Taylor was there. Spike Lee was there. Everyone was coming. Just lots and lots and lots of Black people, and all the performances were sold out.
What are you hoping for from this long-awaited Met premiere?
Christopher: My abiding thought is that we feel this is going to be the performance of record. Most of the people who come won’t know the opera. My kids haven’t even seen it. My daughter is 36 years old, and she wasn’t born when it was done at City Opera. She refuses to listen to it because she says she wants to see it fresh on opening night. So we want to do everything we can to make sure it’s right.
Anthony: I hope the audience is moved. It’s not just about an intellectual response; it’s the visceral response, what it makes you feel. And the language that Thulani used really speaks to today. Malcolm says, “You had your foot on me, always pressing.” You think of George Floyd, and you realize the prescience of the libretto, that what happened 50 years ago still happens today. I think it will act as a crossing of a racial barrier for some people. And for Black people, it’s realizing the pride we have in our heroes, who exemplify what we want to be, and who had a vision of what we could become.
Interview by Matt Dobkin
Edited by Jay Goodwin