Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cry Havoc

"Cry havoc and let loose the hounds of war!"

This is taken from Marc Antony's famous speech in Julius Caesar.

Reading Shakespeare can be confusing, an exercise in frustration as his words are meant to be spoken. So it it appropriate then, that a spoken-word poet, retranslates one of Shakespeare’s most famous (many of us were forced to read it in high school) plays, the aforementioned Caesar as the play/poetical Julius X. It is a recasting of Malcom X’s final days through the framework of Julius Caesar.

Al Letson is known across the country and here in Jacksonville as a powerful, clever, and insightful poet. I also have the good fortune to count him as a friend. He has been working on the form he calls a poetical, for several years now. I saw his first effort, Chalk, and I have steadily watched the progress of the poetical Julius X.

Julius X debuted this month in Jacksonville at Players by the Sea. Last weekend, I went out to catch it, and was, with very few exceptions impressed. The cast worked together, transitioning seamlessly between Letson’s words and those of the Bard with clarity and often forgot that this performance was two ideas become one.

Using minimal sets that echoed the shapes of Harlem, ancient Rome, and Mecca, the director, Barbara Williams (who has directed Letson many times before) created an atmosphere tense and melancholy. There was no promise of a happy ending here, but Williams managed to make the journey to the final tragedy compellingly terrible--laced with betrayal. The result was a play that the audience could not tear their eyes from.

There were a few dissonant notes, the seers, while effective in conveying the terrors ahead in the Ides of March were, at times, a bit too dramatic, verging on camp. But praise certainly goes to David Girard’s Cassius; as Cassius, Girard seemed to savor his own cunning evil, holding it in his entire form the way others experience a fine wine.

Brutus was played with convincing anguish by actor Larry Knight, who realizes only too late, that perhaps Juius X must not die. Cast in several smaller parts (Marullus/Caius/Reverend), Ryan Sinclair emanated gravitas and wisdom; even if that wisdom (as Malcolm X would surely argue) was misplaced. And Renee Freeman as the Soothsayer is clearly that being who thrives on others' misery.

Letson’s play covers the few months between X’s return from Mecca and his death. It chronicles the man’s epiphany that Islam—as he experienced it--is a religion of inclusiveness, and his own personal transformation in regards to race relations in America. It is also an effective glimpse into the power-struggle that was occurring inside the Nation of Islam.

But more than anything else, the play reminds the audience--whether one agrees with the title character’s views or not--of the imperfect nature of humanity, the lessons that history carries, and the lengths that the power-hungry will go to to condense and maintain that power.

It is also worth mentioning that the 43rd anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination has just passed, February 21. This year, he would have been 83. One wonders what the organization he formed after breaking with the Nation, the Muslim Mosque Inc., would have accomplished. That of course, assumes another assassin’s bullet would not have found his heart.

On a personal note, it aroused enough curiosity in me to finally sit down and read Malcolm X's autobiography. More than just the tale on one man's life, it is an anthropological snapshot of a time consigned by the history books as *literally* black and white, when in reality there were many, many shades of grey.

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