‘Detroit Red’ brilliantly showcases Malcolm X’s humble beginnings and local roots

February 12, 2020

There wasn’t always a Malcolm X. No one regarded the youngster from Michigan, nicknamed Detroit Red, as a leader. Instead, he was another kid hustling in the streets of Boston and New York for some pocket change. Little did he know that he was simply wrapping up one chapter of his life to make way for a much bigger one.

“Detroit Red” gives the audience a glimpse into the early days of the civil rights activist before his name was plastered across mass media, and later history textbooks. The play’s world premiere has been staged at ArtsEmerson since Feb. 1.

The play follows young Malcolm X during his time living in Roxbury, working odd jobs like selling sandwiches on a train cart to make enough cash. No matter what city he lived in, however, he faced the same racism and unfairness in his day-to-day life. The show underlines the tough experiences he underwent that later became the foundation for his activism and beliefs.

The three person cast was remarkable as they delivered continuous superb and intense acting. Brontë England-Nelson and Edwin Lee Gibson took on a variety of roles and personas, shifting into different characters naturally throughout the show. From gut wrenching monologues to comical one-line jokes, the feelings they portrayed were felt in every seat of the theater.

The actor who stood out the most was Eric Berryman, whose gutting performance never dwindled as he consistently brought the room to a standstill. Berryman showed Malcolm’s transition from seeing violence and money as a way to earn a living to a way to earn respect. The raw emotions that radiated off him were felt from front row to back of the theater.

But the show wasn’t entirely supported by the actors. The poetic script balanced haunting monologues with dialogue and history about Malcolm’s upbringing and early years. The gripping story had a solid flow that held the audience’s attention throughout the whole play.

“Detroit Red” also dispersed film clips of the actors and Boston streets recorded by Emerson College students. The videos were projected over a mesh screen, overlapping with the live actors on stage. Close-up shots of Berryman allowed the audience to see beads of sweat coat his forehead and wide eyes bulge from his sockets. The unique mix of technical elements combined with the live performance added another layer to Berryman’s acting.

The Robert J. Orchard Stage was the ideal venue for the play to debut, considering the show highlights Malcolm’s time living in Roxbury, as well as references to other local neighborhoods that only true Bostonians would catch.

With a brilliant script delivered by a small yet exceptionally talented cast, “Detroit Red” is not one to miss. “Detroit Red” will play at the Emerson Paramount Center Robert J. Orchard Stage until Feb. 16. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone or in person at the box office.

Courtesy of Randall Garnick Photography
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