Malcolm X is having his moment in Omaha
The Omaha born, iconic leader, Malcolm X, is getting a lot of attention right now. A few weeks ago, he was selected to be the newest inductee into the Nebraska Hall of Fame. He will be the first African American to be selected for this honor. Additionally, coming up in November, Opera Omaha will produce the opera X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X, which will be performed in Omaha before going to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
For JoAnna LeFlore-Ejike, the Executive Director of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, and Leo Louis II, its board president, the synergy of this moment has been 25 years in the making.
“It’s a whole community win. That doesn’t happen all the time, to have a community win” said LeFlore-Ejike. “Everyone can celebrate this.”
The Malcolm X Memorial, which is located on Malcolm’s birth site in North Omaha, serves to bring residents together to remember the legacy of Malcolm X through tours, educational programs, town hall forums and special events.
The upcoming opera production promises to be a fit cultural event for the celebration of his recent Hall of Fame selection. Co-produced with four other opera companies, Detroit Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Seattle Opera, the Opera Omaha production will be the second in line in this massive, revived work. Both Louis and LeFlore-Ejike were able to see the premiere performance in Detroit this past spring.
“To see the representation of black people in opera was a phenomenal sight to see,” remembered Louis. “Then to see the collaboration between the band, ensemble, jazz, dance, of all these art forms in one place, in one display, I know it would have made Malcolm proud, culturally. Because Malcolm, in his idea of the organization of Afro-American unity, wanted to exemplify or magnify the arts for Afro-Americans. The opera does that, from the writers all the way down to the performers.”
Through a series of vignettes, X outlines the life of Malcolm X from boyhood to his assassination in 1965, discovering the past, present and future vision of “a prophet in search of a Black utopia, charting a course for the future” describes Tony winning director, Robert O’Hara. Pulitzer Prize winning composer, Anthony Davis’s jazz improvisation infused, contemporary score traces the path of a figure that grasps the attention of America in biography and legacy.
Leflore-Ejike commented that “I was expecting a dramatized presentation. But the writers share it from Malcom’s lens. The story of him as a father, as a man, often gets put on the backburner, and his activism and world travels are put at the forefront. But he was still a human being. Thankfully, it was a thorough guide into his life.”
Louis agreed, “There’s so much more to Malcom outside of his world travels, his fatherhood, his relationships. Most art doesn’t want to highlight those things because that’s not the juicy tidbit people want to explore. And those are the things that black men in media are often not represented as; fathers and husbands and things like that. Malcolm was very much those things as well as an orator, an organizer, a recruiter, and a leader. Those things should be explored.”
Surrounding the production are numerous chances to connect with the history and community through events, talkback sessions, and concerts. Opera Omaha will host three sessions of Opera in Conversation happening prior to, and following, the opera. These serve to create an open conversation around the piece and the local importance of Malcolm’s message and work. In addition, Super Bowl winner, and Malcolm X aficionado, Geoff Pope will be speaking to Omaha youth and the public the weekend of performances.
“The individual should look at the whole two-week worth of programming. Attend tours at the Malcolm X Memorial, the lectures, including Geoff Pope, the artist events held by
Opera Omaha, all the things surrounding this event. Continue to explore this outside of the Opera,” encouraged Louis.
The Opera, which originally premiered in 1986, is coming into its first major revival, which will garner national attention.
“One of the major differences [between 1986 and] now is that Malcolm is becoming far more accepted than he was. This has a lot to do with the recent times, the George Floyd uprising, the consciousness that spread after that, and all the recognition of Malcolm’s work that’s finally being uncovered because people are thinking comprehensively. They’re able to look deeper into Malcolm, whereas before the propaganda had a real hold on the population. Now that propaganda is being chipped away at by truth,” said Louis.
“I hope [audiences] will be triggered,” said LeFlor-Ejike. “I hope they will be encouraged to dig deeper into his life and the people around Malcolm. He was leading toward something. [Robert O’Hara] mentions a “Black Utopia”, but Malcolm was seeking a unified front among black people. A unified front is a cohesive thing that everybody can understand. And even though they can understand it, it’s something that’s hard to activate and make a reality. We’re still seeking a unified front to this day. It’s going to take a longer approach to see the film, see the opera, read the book, read the speeches. But after that you have to have those conversations at the dinner table, you have to have those conversations at the city council meetings, and at the church, etc., to really figure out what that unified front looks like today.”
For more information and to schedule a tour at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, go to malcolmxfoundation.org