Detroit Opera's 'X' explores life of civil rights leader Malcolm X

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Thulani Davis, a playwright, novelist and librettist, had one book to refer to in the early 1980s when she started researching the life of iconic but complicated civil rights leader Malcolm X: his autobiography.

Much has changed since then — there now are dozens of not just books but movies that delve into the former Nation of Islam leader's life and murder in 1965 at the age of 39 — but what hasn't changed is how much an opera about his life, for which Davis wrote the libretto, is still so pertinent, she said.

From left, Thulani Davis and Anthony Davis are the creative team behind the opera, "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X."  They were photographed at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2022.

Davis said there's an aria that bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who plays X in Detroit Opera's new production of "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" opening Saturday at the Detroit Opera House, sings as Malcolm X is arrested, "Ever since I've been living, you've had your foot on me, always pressing."

More: Warren middle schooler lands role as a young Malcolm X

When Davis heard that line again, "I said, 'Oh my God, that's George Floyd.' ...It's been an interesting journey to see how relevant it is," she said.

Still, by the time curtain raises Saturday, it'll mark the first time Davis has seen the full opera again in more than 30 years. Additional performances are planned for May 19 and 22 at the Detroit Opera House and the production continues on to New York's Metropolitan Opera next fall. Davis's cousin, Anthony Davis, is the composer.

"I'm looking forward to hearing it and seeing it," said Davis, speaking by phone last week.

"X," directed by Robert O’Hara and conducted by Kazem Abdullah, marks the final production of Detroit Opera's 2021-2022 season, one that has included several pieces that explore the Black experience or have Michigan ties. "X," which opens in Lansing where the civil rights leader spent a transformational part of his childhood, has both.

Wayne Brown, Detroit Opera's president and CEO, calls the opera a "significant American story."

"The opportunity to spotlight an historic American figure with Michigan ties, underscores our responsibility to share significant stories of our time through the opera artform," said Brown.

Malcolm X had significant ties to Michigan and Detroit. He spent part of his childhood in Lansing. His wife was from Detroit.

Malcolm X moved to Lansing in the late 1920s with his family after they fled Omaha, Nebraska, to escape the Ku Klux Klan.

But Lansing proved tragic in its own way. In 1931, Malcolm X's father was killed by a streetcar, though his family blamed the Black Legion, a white supremacist group. Struggling to support her eight children, Malcolm X's mother was eventually declared insane and committed to a state hospital in Kalamazoo. Malcolm X started getting in trouble with the law and eventually was sent to a detention home in Mason.

Davis said when "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" first premiered in 1986 — which also was unique in that it included jazz, not typical in operas at the time — many in the audience were familiar with the civil rights leader. But Detroit Opera's new production will introduce him to younger patrons who may not be as familiar with him, his life and his work.

"When we put it on in the '80s there were tons of people who remembered seeing him — on TV if nothing else. In New York, there were people who had seen him in Harlem, speaking. It's quite different now," she said.

But she's updated some parts for the new production. She rewrote, for example, a spoken speech after X returns from Africa so it doesn't "sag," and it's now set to music and sung. And the opera is a little tighter so it isn't as long.

Malcolm X addresses a rally in Harlem in New York City on June 29, 1963.

With opera, Davis said, timelessness is important so she tried to focus on the terror Malcolm X's family experienced in Nebraska, an emotion many felt when they moved to the territories of the United States. She also delved into the spirituality X eventually discovers and the transformation he experiences after Mecca, where "he loses his fear."

"That's a very hard thing to try to describe. Most opera characters don't have the kind of dilemma that Martin Luther King or Malcolm had where both of them knew they had enemies that might try to kill them," said Davis. "That's a really hard place to imagine going. In terms of building a story you want it to be dramatic but some of them are tough places to go. But that's what opera is really good at — the internal thoughts of human beings."

Tines, the renowned bass-baritone who plays X and is Detroit Opera's artist-in-residence, said Malcolm X's life "very much so" lends itself to an opera. Preparing for the role, Tines spent a considerable time getting to know Detroit during the past year, visiting almost monthly, and it now it feels like "one of my other homes."

Davóne Tines, a renowned bass-baritone who has collaborated with opera companies, conductors and composers all over the world, portrays Malcolm X in Detroit Opera's "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X."

"Telling stories beyond what is 'traditional' opera — which is actually kind of preclusive and limiting — is very important because what opera has the potential to do is to give a story a certain scale of engagement and richness through the variety of mediums that are coming together," said Tines. "...With portraying the role of Malcolm X, it's incredible because it allows me to do something I most appreciate  performing arts allowing me to do, which is speak directly to audiences in ways that I think are vital." 

In fact, Tines said in much of the opera, he's delivering speeches or versions of Malcolm X's speeches directly to the audience.

"It's allowing an opportunity for those words and ideas to be re-engaged and retold," he said. "...And I think that's a very intentional choice by our amazing director."

Davis said she hopes audiences, especially younger patrons who may not be as familiar with Malcolm X, walk away with a sense of being able to relate to the iconic leader but also connected connect to the music and words.

She said Detroiters in particular are very much aware of X's history in Michigan. His wife, Betty Shabazz, was from Detroit. And Malcolm X also was one of the ministers at the Nation of Islam's Temple No. 1 in Detroit in the 1960s.

"That's been one of the joys of doing it in Detroit is we're honoring Michigan history," Davis said.

'X: Life and Times of Malcolm X'

a production of Detroit Opera.

Saturday, May 19 & May 22 at the Detroit Opera House.

For tickets, go to