In December 1945 and January 1946, Malcolm X and accomplices burglarized homes in Brookline, Newton, Arlington, Belmont, and Milton. The end of his crime spree came that January in a Roxbury jewelry shop where he’d left a stolen watch for repair. The man who would become the incandescent civil rights leader and evangelist for the Nation of Islam was then just 18.
“The owner of the watch had alerted all the jewelry shops in Boston to be on the lookout for this watch,” says Will Power, author of the play Detroit Red, a “theatrical exploration of the life of Malcolm X as he dwelled and came of age in the Roxbury section of Boston.”
“He goes into the jewelry shop to retrieve the watch and the cop comes out of the back,” Power says. Just then, another man enters the store and the policeman turns to the newcomer. “Malcolm realized in his mind: I could take out my gun and shoot this guy in the back.”
Detroit Red begins with video reenacting the scene. “My whole play takes place in that split second,” Power says, “when Malcolm has to decide whether to shoot the cop or give the gun over.”
The video freezes and the live cast comes out—Eric Berryman as Detroit Red (Malcolm X’s 1940’s nickname) plus Edwin Lee Gibson and Brontë England-Nelson.
Under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans, scenes are intended to flow like memories through Malcolm X’s adventures in early 1940s Boston, to New York from 1942 to ’44, then Boston again.
“It’s a theater piece,” Power says, “that goes to all these heightened moments when he’s trying to figure out who he is.”
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“A lot of people in Boston don’t associate Malcolm X with being a Boston figure. They don’t claim him,” Power says. “Let’s rediscover our own heroes and reclaim them and understand the complexities of who they were.”
In his autobiography, Malcolm X said of his time in Boston, “No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions.”
Fifteen-year-old Malcolm Little (as he was then known) moved from Lansing, Michigan, to Roxbury in February 1941. He stayed with Ella Little-Collins, an older sibling from his father’s first, abandoned family, in her house at 72 Dale St (designated a Boston landmark since 1998) in Roxbury’s “Hill District.”
Malcolm X’s father, Earl Little, a Baptist minister, had been a leader in Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist movement. Malcolm was 4 when the family’s house in East Chicago, Indiana, was torched. His father died when he run over by a Lansing street car in 1931—some suspected murder. Malcolm X’s mother Louise was confined to a mental hospital in January 1939 and wouldn’t come home until 1964. Somehow Malcolm X still excelled in school. He aspired to be a lawyer, but he recalled a white teacher telling him, “That’s no realistic goal for a [N-word].”
So Roxbury astonished him when he first visited in summer 1940. “I saw and met a hundred black people there whose big-city talk and ways left my mouth hanging open,” he recalled in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), which was published just months after the 39-year-old was shot dead during a Harlem speech in 1965. “I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night, especially on Saturdays. Neon lights, nightclubs, pool halls, bars, the cars they drove! Restaurants made the streets smell—rich, greasy, down-home black cooking!”
He became a shoeshine boy at Roseland State Ballroom on Mass Ave, opposite where the Christian Science Center now stands, buffing the footwear of legendary jazzmen who played there—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Rushing.
He worked as a clerk at the soda fountain at Roxbury’s Townsend Drugstore, helped at a South End wallpaper company warehouse, waited tables at the Parker House hotel, served as a butler in an Arlington Street home next to the Public Garden, and was a cook and sandwich vendor on the railroads.
He bought himself a zoot suit on credit. He learned to dance the Lindy hop. He got involved in petty thievery, the numbers racket, drugs, ushering clients to prostitutes. The play shows Malcolm “getting his first cronk,” Power says. “He channels his father in it. … The pain of the cronk also becomes the pain of losing his father.”
He dated a blond Armenian-American dancer named Bea (Caragulian) Bazarian—later one of his burglary accomplices. Power uses the pseudonym “Sophia” that Malcolm adopted in the autobiography. “I use names that are all made up,” the playwright says. “I went with the mythological ones. … I think it’s more interesting that she’s from the old Boston society. I don’t know if it’s factual, but it’s truthful.”
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“I’ve always been very inspired by Malcolm X, since I was a child,” Power says. “There was just something about his charisma and his willingness to speak truth and his artistry.”
Power was born William Wylie in Manhattan and raised in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where he acquired his nickname: Will Power. “I grew up in a very post-civil rights, black nationalist home.” He says his father had been part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and marched on Bloody Sunday, the 1965 voting rights demonstration when police savaged activists at Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
During summers with his grandparents in New York, Power was introduced to Broadway theater. As a kid, he began acting as well as rapping. He became a pioneer of hip-hop theater. His plays include Fetch Clay, Make Man, Stagger Lee, Seize the King, and The Seven. New York Magazine called him “the best verse playwright in America.”
In Detroit Red, “the language is like, it’s like verse almost. Characters talk, but they stretch it out into metaphors and similes,” Power says. “The language is poetic. I wouldn’t say it’s musical, but it’s rhythmic.”
In researching Detroit Red, Power says he spoke with folks here who knew Malcolm X in the 1940s, read books, and dug into the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
“I want folks to try to get the complete complexity of Malcolm and of human beings. I don’t want to depict icons as perfect beings. If we make them as perfect beings, it’s hard for us to see ourselves in them. … If we show them as who they were—they were complex figures who fell and got up—we can capture the next round of leaders. We really need it now.”
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Malcolm X—tall and lean with reddish hair—acquired the nickname “Detroit Red” while washing dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem in the early 1940s. Fellow employee, John Elroy Sanford (later the famous comedian Redd Foxx), who also had reddish hair, was dubbed “Chicago Red,” after his hometown. Malcolm became “Detroit Red”—because Detroit was cooler than Lansing.
He moved back to Boston in October 1944. When he pawned a relative’s fur coat, Ella reported him to police. Then in December 1945 and January 1946, Malcolm and friends went on the burglary spree—followed by his arrest.
In his mug shot, the 18-year-old’s straightened hair is combed back and his fedora is cocked on his head at a stylish angle. His expression seems both salty and resigned. He was sentenced to eight to 10 years, which he served at Charlestown State Prison (now the site of Bunker Hill Community College), the Massachusetts Reformatory in Concord and Norfolk Prison Colony, until his release in 1952.
While behind bars, he read extensively, took part in a debating society, and, at the urging of his family, began to pursue a place in the Nation of Islam.
It was the culmination of his self-education during his Detroit Red years in Boston and New York and prisons here. He learned to dance. He took on something of the intellectual aspirations of the city. He developed his critiques of middle-class blacks (“snooty,” “trying to imitate white people”) and white liberals. He learned street life: “In an odd way, I feel like it gave him a certain amount of autonomy. I don’t have to put on a suit and work as a butler for a white man,” Power says. “Of course, that world eats your soul.”
Malcolm X would go on to preach black self-reliance and self-defense, to promote education, to rail against the systemic racism of “blue-eyed devils.” He was controversial—the New York Times report of his assassination described him as “a bearded extremist … with a gift for bitter eloquence against what he considered white exploitation of Negroes.” He became an inspiration to millions because he spoke so much truth.
Boston “gave him the foundation, the building blocks of a lot of things—his understanding of the world,” Power says. “He’s not Malcolm X yet, but he’s on his way to transforming.”
DETROIT RED. EMERSON PARAMOUNT CENTER, ROBERT J. ORCHARD STAGE, 559 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. FEB 1-16, 2020. TICKETS FROM $25. ARTSEMERSON.ORG.
Greg Cook runs the Wonderland blog (https://gregcookland.com/wonderland/) and is scheduled to begin painting a mural in Salem's Punto Urban Art Museum in October (http://puntourbanartmuseum.org).