In “How I Learned What I Learned,’’ an autobiographical drama by the late and very great August Wilson, the playwright vividly delineated the characters he met in his 20s while knocking around the streets of Pittsburgh. We can see Wilson finding his voice in “How I Learned,’’ and we can see, too, the outlines of the man and artist he would become.
There were times when I wished that sense of a connection between early experience and mature achievement, between emerging figure and towering force, were as directly drawn in “Detroit Red,’’ Will Power’s new play about Malcolm X’s early years in Boston.
But Power’s poeticized, episodic account of how Malcolm X learned what he learned, and how he became what he became, ultimately adds up to an engrossing portrait of the activist as a young man.
Eric Berryman delivers an electric performance in the world premiere of “Detroit Red’’ at the Paramount Center, capturing the restless energy and burning intensity of young Malcolm Little, who comes to live with his half-sister in Roxbury at age 16 in the early 1940s. Stylishly directed by Lee Sunday Evans, the ArtsEmerson production of “Detroit Red’’ takes place on a shadow-steeped stage and features exceptionally evocative use of video imagery (by projection designer Ari Herzig) that is suggestive of ‘40s-era film noir while also underscoring — quite literally at a couple of points — Malcolm X’s larger-than-life quality.
Encounters with racism aren’t long in arriving for young Malcolm Little, nicknamed Detroit Red, in this coming-of-age drama, and he gets a taste of economic injustice as well, beset as he is by money worries. As he adjusts to life in Boston, Malcolm is still scarred by the death years earlier of his father on Michigan trolley tracks — ruled an accident but really the deadly work, the son believes, of a white supremacist organization that had targeted the senior Little — and the subsequent institutionalization of his mother after an emotional breakdown.
“Detroit Red’’ is framed by, and unfolds within, a defining, life-shaping moment: When Malcolm, now in his 20s, has to decide whether or not to allow himself to be arrested in a Boston jewelry store, where he has gone to pick up a stolen watch he had left for repair.
The play then shows us what stretches back behind that pivotal moment: years of bouncing from job to job — working behind the counter in an ice cream shop; selling sandwiches on a train during a stint as a Pullman porter; hawking coats and gloves on street corners — combined with stints as a burglar and pimp.
What lies ahead of that moment in the jewelry store, of course, and is left undepicted in “Detroit Red,’’ is the stint in prison that would eventually lead to Malcolm Little’s transformation into Malcolm X. Joining the Nation of Islam, he became a fiery voice of Black pride, nationalism, and autonomy who represented a different approach to the 1960s civil rights struggle than that advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. (He was assassinated in 1965, three years before King was slain.)
To Power’s credit, “Detroit Red’’ does not offer a sanitized portrait, especially when it comes to the volatile Malcolm’s chronic mistreatment of Sophia (Bronte England-Nelson), his married white mistress. Sophia becomes an accomplice to him and friend Shorty (Edwin Lee Gibson) in a burglary scheme, casing the homes of affluent Bostonians. Malcolm and Shorty end up in what Malcolm describes as “an apartment across from Boston Common with furniture costing more than a whole row of houses in Roxbury.” What plays out in that apartment crystallizes the kind of objectification that Malcolm refuses to abide, a sequence of events that proves to be a turning point of sorts.
But I kept thinking back to another moment in “Detroit Red,” when Malcolm Little reacts with fury after a white train passenger calls him “boy’’ and subjects him to other demeaning treatment. “The Black man must stand up and be his own master,” Malcolm tells the other Pullman porter. “Now, let’s start now, let’s go tell that white man that never again will we be his boy.”
That call to action is a foretaste of the proud defiance that would become Malcolm X’s trademark, as well as a pointed reminder, one of many as “Detroit Red” compellingly dramatizes his lesser-known chapters, that when a life is as complicated as that of Malcolm X, history books can only tell part of the story.
Play by Will Power. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. Production by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston, through Feb. 16. Tickets $25-$90, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org