By Cristina Rodriguez

The Expulsion of Malcolm X, presented by Colors of Vision Entertainment, is playing at Laney College Theater through May 31.

The play went back and forth from Malcolm’s public life to his semi-public life within the Nation of Islam. The mood shifted, correspondingly, between stiff and severe to dramatic and, at times, confrontational. The Expulsion said as much about the black freedom struggle as character and organizational leadership.

The minimalism was the play’s greatest asset as well as its greatest challenge to the audience. Its austerity parallels the black-and-white nature of Malcolm’s politics and inner world, and keeps the audience away from fanciful interpretations of Malcolm X and the NOI, as well as prompting a serious consideration of the issues that he lived and died for — and the struggles in his own life. Prior knowledge of Malcolm X’s politics, however, would help to make up for the lack of audibility produced by the actors.

The play starts out with footage of slavery and lynchings, and is punctuated by intermittent speeches decrying the evils of racism and violence against black people. The audience is introduced to Malcolm’s process of political formation. While serving time behind bars, he met a fellow inmate who had a huge influence on his life. The self-taught scholar “commanded total respect with words” — a respect previously thought to be earned by might or money. He was “like a walking encyclopedia… formidable in debate… and could put a man to shame without using curse words.”

Inspired by this encounter, he started by reading the dictionary from front to back — and ended up reading every book in the collection, often staying up past lights-out, aided only by a faint glow in the hallway. Had he been in college, he reflects, there would have been too many parties and distractions, but in prison he would read for up to 15 hours a day.

“It didn’t feel like I was in prison” he recounts, “because I’d never felt so free in my life.” The bare set reminds us of the this inner richness amidst outer sparsity — if only the actors’ voices were loud enough to convey greater conviction.

His experience — his awakening behind bars — set him apart at the NOI. With boldness and steadfast conviction, coupled with his commanding physical presence and 6’3″ stature, he was starting to have the appearance of a flawless leader.

The NOI was a multimillion dollar empire that provided cars and homes for its ministers, but Malcolm was not lured in by the prospect of partaking in these excesses. Refusing many of the material comforts that the NOI offered him, he said: “I don’t want to be a minister who keeps people poor.” Having left unsigned the deed for a house designated for him, he accepted only a car and a modest salary for living expenses. The suits he wore were clean, but tattered from overuse.

At first, Malcolm had trouble believing that the NOI’s leader Elijah Muhammad was having extramarital affairs with several of the secretaries, many of them married, in the organization. A meeting with Wallace, Elijah Muhammad’s son, confirmed the rumors, saying, “My father has more mistresses than a beehive has bees.”

As Malcolm learned of the corruption inside NOI, the rest of the organization could have responded by working to reform the organization. Instead, they sidestepped the issues and conspired against him. A few members of the NOI then dedicated themselves to creating a wedge between the two by telling Muhammad that Malcolm was trying to oust him.

At the same time, Malcolm’s popularity was blowing up: he was getting regular news coverage, had speaking engagements at Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, and became the second-most requested speaker at universities in the U.S., second to Barry Goldwater.

Malcolm X’s disillusionment with Muhammad’s affairs, coupled with the envy and betrayal fired at him, made the environment at NOI very tense. All of this provides context for Malcolm’s 90-day silencing, which ultimately led to his expulsion.

“Being a negro in America is not a comfortable existence. Being a negro in America is like having your legs cut off and the being hated for being a cripple.” Being a negro in America, one might agree, is not a comfortable existence–but being a leader like Malcolm X was certainly not a comfortable existence, either.

If you go:
The Expulsion of Malcolm X
Laney College Theater
900 Fallon Street
(650) 776-5838

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