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When Malcolm X was Malcolm Little, and Roxbury was home

"Detroit Red" playwright Will Power and director Lee Sunday Evans. The play about Malcolm X's early years in Roxbury will be performed at the Emerson Paramount Theatre in Boston.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

Back in the 1970s, Will Power attended an elementary school in San Francisco’s Fillmore district named after Malcolm X. There were posters of the slain civil rights activist on the walls, and Power can recall hearing his recorded speeches.

At 5 or 6 years old, he says, “I didn’t really understand the speeches, but I loved the energy of them, the rhythm.”

Power, now in his 40s and a playwright, is widely acknowledged as one of the founding artists behind hip-hop theater. His contemporary revision of an ancient Greek tragedy, “The Seven,” an off-Broadway hit in 2006, was an inspiration for the creators behind “Hamilton.” In 2013, he premiered “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” an acclaimed play based on the unlikely real-life friendship between Muhammad Ali and the actor Stepin Fetchit.


Power’s next play focuses on the powerful speaker for whom his old elementary school was named. “Detroit Red,” a world premiere that begins performances Saturday at the Paramount Center, focuses on Malcolm Little’s formative years in Roxbury, where he lived with his half-sister and her family, explored Boston’s nightlife, got himself arrested, and ultimately formulated much of his worldview.

Born Malcolm Little, the play’s subject moved from Michigan to Roxbury at age 14, after his mother’s institutionalization and the death of his father. While serving prison time for larceny beginning at age 20, Malcolm became attracted to the tenets of the Nation of Islam, an organization that preached Black self-reliance. After his release, the charismatic speaker helped establish NOI temples in Boston, Springfield, Hartford, and across the country. As he became an outspoken voice for Pan-Africanism, Malcolm’s controversial split with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad made him a target. On Feb. 21, 1965, he was assassinated in a brazen attack at a speaking engagement at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.


Like “Fetch Clay,” “Detroit Red” examines the legacy of a larger-than-life personage through one crucial moment in time. The title comes from the nickname Malcolm earned during his years of street life.

“I’m not always satisfied with the cradle-to-grave narrative for these huge figures,” Power says, sitting in the Paramount’s second-floor lobby with director Lee Sunday Evans and actor Edwin Lee Gibson before a recent rehearsal. Spike Lee’s epic 1992 feature film “Malcolm X” was a great movie, he said — “I dug it!” — but Power prefers the human scale of isolating a single episode in a life.

On that level, he’s in total harmony with director Evans. They first met about a decade ago, when they were each invited to join a group of teaching artists on an expedition to Tanzania. Evans, who grew up in Denver, had just graduated from Boston University.

“I was a shrimp,” she says with a smile. “Will was already an acclaimed performance artist.”

Since then, Evans has directed work at the Public Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, and BAM’s Next Wave Festival, and she won an Obie Award in 2015 as director of “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes.”

“She’s such an amazing artist, so in demand,” says Power. These two mutual admirers shared a couch alongside Gibson, who plays several roles in the play, including that of Shorty, Malcolm’s best friend and running partner during his time in Boston. Gibson recently portrayed the comedian and activist Dick Gregory in a Washington, D.C., production of “Turn Me Loose.” (Actor Eric Berryman, who plays Malcolm, made an appearance in “Marriage Story” and recently starred off-Broadway in “The B-Side.” He was under the weather on the day we visited.)


Gibson performed one of Power’s pieces years ago, before they met, and he went on to play the role of Oedipus in “The Seven,” for which he won his own Obie Award. Independently, both men moved to the small Hudson Valley city of Beacon, N.Y., around the same time.

“So yeah, this is family,” says Gibson.

Like Gibson, Evans was drawn to Power’s work before they began collaborating on the current production.

“One thing I’ve always been interested in as a director is structure and form,” she says. “There’s something written in my stars about working with performers who are also playwrights. I find that there’s something interesting about people who are brilliant performers and are also writing plays. They have a keen sense of what’s theatrical, what works.

“I do think this play is a brilliant structural proposal,” she continues. “We’re investigating this time essentially through the lens of one key moment, when [Malcolm] has to make a really complicated decision under a lot of pressure.”

Gibson, who has appeared in plays at the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater, says his past experiences in Boston have been illuminating.

“I found Boston to be one of the smartest places I’ve worked as an actor,” he says. But his reception in the daily life of the city, as a Black visitor, has sometimes been another matter.


“There’s a bigger conversation about loving the art, but not liking the vessel it comes from,” he says. “I always find it interesting.”

He’s originally from Houston, which has its own complicated mix of liberal attitudes and lingering segregation.

“I don’t separate my art, my craft, my vocation, whatever you want to call it, from the history of the country. I can’t separate them.”

Nor can Will Power, who now lives with his family in the Atlanta area. While developing “Detroit Red,” the playwright made multiple trips to Boston. He met some community members who knew Malcolm from his Nation of Islam years and beyond and a few, including Melvin B. Miller, founder and editor of the Bay State Banner, who knew him in the 1940s in his “Detroit Red” phase. Power was already familiar with the Emerson College community, having served three years at Dallas Theater Center in the National Playwright Residency program, a product of the HowlRound Theatre Commons project, which is based at Emerson.

For Power, it will be gratifying to premiere the play in the city where Malcolm spent his early adulthood. On his research visits, he walked the streets of Roxbury where Malcolm developed some of his ideas about what he called the “Hill Negroes” — affluent Black families who looked down upon their lower-income neighbors. He heard stories about the old Roseland State Ballroom on Massachusetts Avenue, where his subject worked and took part in a pivotal dance contest, as told in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”


“And there’s a critical scene in an apartment right across from Boston Common,” Power says. That kind of opportunity to make real-life connections to his source material “is golden.”

Rodnell Collins, son of Malcolm’s half-sister Ella Little-Collins, manages the ongoing restoration of the historic Malcolm X house in Roxbury. He’s typically wary of dramatic adaptations of his uncle’s life, he said in a phone conversation.

“I don’t know anything about the script,” he says. “One of the things Malcolm asked was that people not interpret his life. He asked that they chronicle it.”

The bottom line for him: “If they’re hiring African-Americans, then I’m all for it.”

E-mail James Sullivan at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.


Produced by ArtsEmerson. At the Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, Feb. 1-16. Tickets start at $25, 617-824-8400,