'Julius X' remixes Malcolm and Shakespeare
April 24, 2007
BY MARTIN F. KOHN
FREE PRESS THEATER CRITIC
How's this for confidence? In his play "Julius X," Al Letson Jr. dares to alter the way we think about two iconic figures, Julius Caesar and Malcolm X -- three, if you count Shakespeare.
"Julius X," in its world premiere at Plowshares Theatre, re-imagines Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" as the story of Malcolm X's assassination -- and vice versa. Brutus and Cassius are renamed Brutus Muhammad and Cassius 10X. Like their Shakespearean counterparts, the chief conspirators are motivated by a jumble of jealousy, ambition and patriotism -- the latter meaning devotion to Harlem, the Nation of Islam and black people in general.
Letson's grafting of the two worlds works well. Resentment, partisanship and self-aggrandizement are not confined to any era. And because this is a work of imagination, facts may be disregarded in the interest of something greater. Malcolm X was shot to death. Julius X, like Shakespeare's Caesar, is fatally stabbed.
"This is not the story you know," says the Soothsayer who introduces the play, "but somewhere in between."
Letson, who is from Jacksonville, Fla., calls his play a poetical and himself a poet and hip-hop playwright. In a musical, actors burst into song; in a poetical, actors burst into ... you've got it.
In Detroit for the premiere of "Julius X," Letson elaborated on the concept of hip-hop theater. The beats aren't necessarily those they play on the radio these days but, like the hip hop he grew up on (Letson is 34), "Julius X" mixes samples (quotes) from Shakespeare and samples (quotes) from Malcolm X with original words.
Under Gary Anderson's knowing direction, "Julius X" has a clean, pared-down look and sounds terrific. The ensemble poetry is especially effective, with actors onstage often augmented by those behind the audience, creating a sound that seems to come from the air.
In a standout performance, Anthony Lucas is sneaky, snaky and intellectually seductive as chief instigator Cassius 10X. Whatever you call the character, Lucas makes a mesmerizing Cassius and clearly has the tools to perform Shakespeare's version, should the need arise.
Letson has greatly enlarged the roles of two women: Julius' wife, Calpurnia, and Brutus' wife, Portia. Tiffany D. Mitchenor, as Calpurnia, and Casaundra Simmons, as Portia, bring genuine emotion to their parts.
"Julius X" is neither hard-core Shakespeare nor hard-core hip-hop, but adherents of both, and playgoers of all sorts, likely will find something surprising and pleasing.
Contact MARTIN F. KOHN at 313-222-6517 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.
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