Detroit Red

February 6, 2020

in Plays

by Will Power
World Premiere

Directed by Lee Sunday Evans

Emerson Paramount Center
Theater district, Boston
February 1-16, 2020

With Eric Berryman (Detroit Red), Edwin Lee Gibson (Shorty and Others), Bronte England-Nelson (Sophiia and Others)

Edwin Lee Gibson as Shorty, Eric Berryman as Malcolm X aka 'Detroit Red' in 'Detroit Red'

Edwin Lee Gibson as Shorty
Eric Berryman as Malcolm X aka “Detroit Red”
in “Detroit Red”
Photo: Randall Garnick Photography
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson

A narratively collage-like, but intense and heartfelt, account of the early days of Malcolm X in Boston and New York.

The early life of Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, in Boston and New York is perhaps not as well known as his later days as a leader of the Black Muslim movement and one of the strongest and most militant voices for African-American rights. That life is portrayed in a combination of poetic and narrative form in Detroit Red, named after the nickname Malcolm earned as a result of dying his hair bright red when he came, as a late teenager, to Boston from Lansing, Michigan.

The play goes through a fair amount of Malcolm’s early history, involving his work as a porter on the railroad, a small time hustler and crook, a resident in a brothel, and paramour to at least one married white woman, though it’s not always clear from the narrative exactly how many of these involvements there were. The play also suggests, in its culmination, that there was an erotic demand put on him by a white man in Boston; that appears to have been derived from Manning Marable’s 2011 biography Malcolm X in which he speculates on the erotic involvement with William Paul Lennon, a white entrepreneur with whom Malcolm had a somewhat extended association.

The production is sparely produced, with many of the scenes conveyed on a bare stage with hardly any lighting. It does open up in the final scene to a larger set, but most of the preceding narrative takes place in a focal, and fairly dark, space.

Bronte England-Nelson as Sophia, Eric Berryman as Malcolm X aka 'Detroit Red' in 'Detroit Red'

Bronte England-Nelson as Sophia
Eric Berryman as Malcolm X aka “Detroit Red”
in “Detroit Red”
Photo: Randall Garnick Photography
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson

The narrative is a woven pastiche that will make most sense to those who have some prior familiarity with Malcolm X’s early history. The scenes in the railroad, the brothel, and in settings in which Malcolm and his co-conspirator Shorty (Edwin Lee Gibson) concoct their schemes for crookery, are stitched together in fairly rapid succession so that it’s not always clear where he is or what’s going on. Adding a bit to the confusion is the duplication of roles taken on by Edwin Lee Gibson and Bronte England-Nelson. Both do a fine job of conveyng the multiple personages, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s who. To add to the confusion, Malcolm’s long-term white mistress, referred to as Sophia in his autobiography, was actually a woman named Bea Caragulian.

As Malcolm, aka Detroit Red, Eric Berryman does a very fine job of delivering multiple soliloquys that, more than anything in the production, give a vivid sense of the rage, passion and drive of the character. Playwright Will Power has delivered a series of these eloquent verbal explosions, and the play is really made as a frame for them. If one were to simply go and experience Berryman’s delivery of those impassioned lines and not worry too much about the plot details, the theatrical experience would be well worth it.

– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

sarah February 7, 2020 at 5:59 pm


I didn’t know anything about Malcom X’s early history till reading your review.

Thank you!

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