Review: Detroit Opera's 'X' delivers timely, haunting retelling of Malcolm X's life

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Shortly before the end of the second act of Detroit Opera's visually stunning new production of composer Anthony Davis's "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X," bass-baritone Davóne Tines sits slumped in a chair in the middle of the stage.

About to be sent to prison on a burglary conviction, his hair is ruffled and clothes are askew. His disillusionment is palpable. 

"My truth is rough. My truth could kill. My truth is fury," sings Tines, his face contorted with anger.

The opera, which opened Saturday at the Detroit Opera House and returns for two more performances May 19 and 22, never shies away from the intensity of the iconic civil rights leader's life and the uncomfortable truths he raised. If anything, "X," which originally premiered in 1986, feels even more haunting and timely in today's racially divisive climate. At one point, digital panels on the stage's ceiling which project different images throughout the opera, scroll the names of those killed for being Black.

Davóne Tines, a renowned bass-baritone, performs as Malcolm X in Detroit Opera's new production, "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X."

Tines, who has been described by the Los Angeles Times "as one of the most powerful voices of our time," delivers an absolute powerhouse performance that fills the stage not just with X's physicality but a simmering, controlled rage. The opera follows him as he transforms from ward of the state in Michigan to hustler, criminal, felon, converted Muslim and icon before he's murdered in New York in 1965.

Some of the most powerful parts of the opera, directed by Robert O'Hara with libretto by Thulani Davis, are when Tines delivers some of X's actual speeches as he's a rising leader in the Nation of Islam. In those portions, the orchestra continues to play but Tines speaks the words with power rather than sing them.

"We want justice by any means necessary," recites Tines. 

Michigan, meanwhile, plays a significant role in the opera, given that it's where X spent most of his childhood and also lived, in a home in Inkster, after being released from prison.

The opera begins in the early 1930s in Lansing, where a young Malcolm X, then Malcolm Little, lives with his parents and seven siblings. His father, Earl, a preacher, is late and Little's mom is distraught as she waits for her husband to return.

She later learns that her husband has been killed, run over by a streetcar, though his family believe he's been murdered by white supremacists. 

Charles Dennis, a Warren middle schooler who made his opera debut Saturday, brings a curiosity and earnestness to playing a young Malcolm X. Throughout the entire first and second acts, even as X is an adult, Dennis shadows Tines on stage, almost a reminder of his young self and all he's endured.

Composer Anthony Davis' score, meanwhile, features layered rhythmic construction with jazz influences clearly evident (though Davis has bristled at calling "X" a "jazz opera.")

The opera never veers from the difficult reality of X's upbringing. He sings that at one point, he thought his name was an expletive used for Blacks because he was called it so much as a child in Michigan.

Questioning his role with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, portrayed by bass-baritone Davóne Tines, travels to Mecca.

Preparing to portray X, Tines said he watched videos, studying everything from how he stood at a podium to delivered speeches.

"There's a lot of boiling tension but also a coolness and calmness," said Tines, in an interview with The Detroit News earlier this month. "I wanted to translate that but a complication of doing that is you have to perform at a certain scale, a physicality to reach the people in the back."

Tines achieves that goal. Throughout his performance Saturday, he delivered a physicality that inhabited the civil rights leader.

The staging, meanwhile, also really brings a sense of scale and power to "X." When his parents are terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan in Omaha, Nebraska, and their house set ablaze before they fled to Michigan, the digital panels, almost shaped like a swirling circle above the stage, show flames.

Two of the most haunting scenes are when X is sent to prison and later as he travels to Mecca. 

At the start of the opera Saturday, Detroit Opera CEO Wayne Brown welcomed the crowd along with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Opera Artistic Director Yuval Sharon.

Sharon said anyone who had the benefit of hearing X speak were "transformed by his voice and message."

"And anyone who had the great fortune of hearing the opera about Malcolm X performed 36 years ago would say they same thing," said Sharon. "They felt transformed by the voice, the music, the originality, the dazzling orchestrations, and, of course, the messages that this opera has to say. Tonight is an important corrective because it's taken 36 years for this opera to come back."

Thursday's performance of "X" falls on what would've been X's 97th birthday.

After its run in Detroit ends, "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X"  will continue on with stops at Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Omaha and Seattle Opera.