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SwatTalk: The Making of the Opera “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X”

with Christopher “Kip” Davis ’75 and Hernease Davis ’04

Recorded on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024



Ayana Johnson ’09 Good evening, all. Welcome. Hello Swatties, friends and other colleagues. Thank you so much for joining tonight's SwatTalk. My name is Ayana Johnson and I am a member of the class of 2009 and also the current president of the Alumni Council for Swarthmore College. I am just thrilled today to be here. So happy February. Happy Black History Month, and we are so glad to have everyone here today with us. This month's SwatTalk is actually in partnership with the Swarthmore Black Alumni Network, or SBAN as part of our commemoration of Black History Month. And we're so excited that we were able to partner with SBAN for today's talk about the making of the opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X today with Christopher "Kip" Davis, class of '75, and Hernease Davis, class of 2004. I'm so glad that both of you are here today. I just wanted to go through some quick housekeeping, but actually before I get to that, I'm just really wanna give a personal shout out to Kip. Kip is a, or was a former member of the Alumni council and was my mentor on Alumni Council when I first joined. And I had the pleasure of seeing his opera, X, in December with my mom and others Swatties in New York, closing night. And it was just an amazing, amazing experience. And so I'm so glad that we all get a chance to hear directly from you about the opera, your inspiration, et cetera. But you have been such a gift to the college, both being a member of the Alumni Council, being a 2020 awardee of the Joseph B Shane Alumni Service Award. And very importantly, maybe even most importantly, a founding member of SBAN. So thank you Kip for all that you've done for the college and for alums alike. I want to just give a quick, some quick business things. SwatTalks is actually brought to you by Swarthmore Alumni Council. It's one of our signature initiatives. And tonight's session is being recorded, so you'll be able to find it online on our SwatTalks page on the college's website within a week or within a couple of weeks. If you're interested in watching previous SwatTalks, you can also find all of those online as well, and we can make sure people get that link after the event. For those who are new to SwatTalks, or maybe you are regular, just some quick housekeeping rules. Please use the Q&A feature in Zoom to send your questions and be sure to include your name and class year when you do so. And Hernease will be moderating today's session and she will make sure to answer as many questions or ask as many questions as we possibly can. And I wanna introduce Hernease, our moderator for tonight. Hernease Davis is a photo based artist and the assistant curator of Public Programs and Education at the Visual Studies Workshop. At the Visual Studies Workshop, Hernease focuses on contemporary photographic conversations. She's most recently began producing the Project Space Podcast where she interviews artists who have participated in the visual study workshops, long running residency program. Hernease's own work uses photography, crochet and sound to create multi-sensorial installations that explore the complex notions of empathy. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and institutions throughout the US, including the International Center for Photography, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Silver Eye Center for Photography, and the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. Work from her ongoing series, A Womb of My Own, Mistakes Were Made in Development will be featured in an upcoming publication about emerging photo artists of color by Rutledge. So without further ado, Hernease, I'll turn it over to you and Kip.

Hernease Davis ’04 Thank you so much Ayanna, and thank you to everyone who's here. And I have the pleasure of saying more things about Kip Davis. So before I begin my questions, I just want to read a short introduction about Christopher "Kip" Davis. And Kip has worked as an actor and director in addition to his role as story writer for X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, he performed the role of Malcolm X in el-Hajj Malik, a play about Malcolm X by NR Davidson for theater companies, both in New Haven, Connecticut, and Jamaica, Queens, as well as creating the role of Nat Turner in Against The Sun by Isan Brasi. Since 1990, Christopher has worked in market research for Ipsos North America, a multinational French health firm, where he was director of insights of the Ipsos Affluent Intelligence Group. Christopher is thrilled to see X return for a whole new generation of artists and audiences to the Met. And so for me, so Kip, I've had the pleasure of speaking with you over the last several months now about X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. And we've known each other for some time and we've mainly gotten to know each other as members of the Swarthmore Black Alumni Network. And also because we both live in New York City, but we're also connected through the arts. So I'm a photo-based artist and I've always enjoyed our conversations about the arts, especially photography, but we mainly discuss either my work or the works of your family, but never yours. And so I was shocked to learn that you, your brother Anthony and your cousin Thulani had made an opera about the life of Malcolm X, but while I was shocked, for me it also made sense because you have this creative sensibility that I've always enjoyed. And I'll say that I've learned so much speaking with you about this project because I adore process and I know you do too. And I've gotten to learn more about you and your process in our discussion. So one of the things that I've learned from you is that your role in the creation of this opera is quite unusual. So Anthony is the composer, Thulani wrote the libretto, but not many operas also credit a story writer?

Kip Davis ’75 Correct.

Hernease Davis ’04 So can you explain your role as a story writer and can you also share with us what inspired you to even consider Malcolm X?

Kip Davis ’75 Sure. Well, I think we decided early on that we needed a, some more dramatic structure to be able to build the opera because Malcolm's life was so big. It's like, what do you choose to include, what do you leave out? And also, you know, on a most basic level, like what is it that we wanna say? And so we worked on coming up with a narrative that reflected our particular view of Malcolm and how important he was to our lives and how we wanted to share that importance with others. So I was first exposed to the autobiography in 1974, in Chuck James' African American autobiography course at Swarthmore College. It was the second course in African American literature the college ever taught. And this was one of the pieces. And the whole reading list was phenomenal. If my life had gone in a different direction after X in 1986, I should have, or maybe still will do like four or five other pieces that specifically come from that reading list. That included Life of an American Slave by Frederick Douglass, Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, the Big Sea by Langston Hughes, Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Esteban Montejo. And that last one I finally was able to track down earlier today. And so when I read the autobiography in the class, I literally called my brother who was a music major at Yale and had, parallel to that had been developing his own, what do you call it, in contemporary terms now? Anyway, he was also a jazz musician, composer, and piano player. And I said, there's so much music in the autobiography that it really deserves to have a treatment that involves music. And that also that Malcolm's spiritual development really paralleled the development of jazz in the sixties. And we could, and I saw a real parallel between his spiritual growth and that of John Coltrane. And from, there's also the whole section where Malcolm is essentially a hustler working the dance halls through the forties. So there's all that earlier jazz music that's in there. And for us, we always thought of his conversion to The Nation of Islam as being like A Love Supreme. And actually to this day, at the end of Act two, scene one, at the culmination of that conversion, there is a saxophone solo. Managed to keep it in there after all these years. So that's cool. So that was the origin of it. After college, my brother and I and Thulani all moved to New York City. Actually Thulani was a undergrad at Barnard. So she had a head start on us and we were all involved in like the downtown sort of music, art, dance, poetry scene that existed in New York City in the early eighties. Anthony and Thulani did a piece together called The Mississippi Meets The Amazon, which is, for those of you who might know the genre, was a choreopoem that involved Thulani, her college roommate, Ntozake Shange, and a third poet whose name I am forgetting. And she will be very upset with me. So they did that piece first in like women's bars in the village. And then the someone from the public theater came and saw it and then moved that piece to what was called, what's now Joe's Pub. And at the same time my brother was starting to get commissions to do with dance companies, with downtown dance companies. So he was sort of part of that scene. And then he got an invitation from Opera America, which is a sort of a umbrella organization for American opera companies to come to a conference. And they asked him if he had any operatic music and he said, "Well, I could put something together." And reached out and says, "Hey, maybe we should start working on that Malcolm X project." So I said, that sounds cool. And then reached out to Thulani and they put together one aria, which I think ended up being Louisa's aria from act one, which is literally the most complicated operatic piece in the whole shebang. So people were like shocked 'cause this guy hadn't done any, much of any vocal music at all, and he was known for, you know, very complex rhythmic dance music. And so a producer of a startup theater, music theater festival in Philly came up to Tony and said, "We wanna produce this." He says, "Produce what? It's one aria." And he says, "We've gotten money from The National Endowment, we're gonna do performances this summer, we want this piece."

Hernease Davis ’04 And that was all based off of this very kind of, well I would say like esoteric or very unique sounding opera. But aria, not even an opera then. There was just-

Kip Davis ’75 Right, one thing, and it was, you have to understand this was in the Reagan administration. Okay?

Hernease Davis ’04 Oh, yeah, yeah.

Kip Davis ’75 So what was happening is The National Endowment was putting all this money into opera companies to produce operas. Not putting any money into commissions for people to create operas. So you couldn't get the money unless you had a performance date. So I quit my job and we all started working on it, and by that summer we only managed to get through act two, scene one. Okay? The first act was entirely staged, act two, scene one, which is the clip everybody received, was done in concert version. And you know, Anthony and Thulani were still writing. And then luckily for us, the performance we did at the Trocadero Theater, which is a former burlesque house in Chinatown in Philadelphia, a critic from the New York Times was there and wrote a review and said, "And I just wanna sit here until they finish it." So we said, okay. And then we workshopped the piece and it evolved over the next two years. What ended up at City Opera, and how it ended up at City Opera was pretty strange. And also there was a whole interesting element of it because Anthony is an improviser. He is very responsive to the players he works with and the singers that he encountered. So originally the role of Street, which I created sort of as a representation of a particular kind of worldview that Malcolm is exposed to, was supposed to be a baritone, actually a bass baritone. And it was sung in the original production by, Avery Gross. And then we were looking for a new Elijah Muhammad high tenor part. And this guy comes in auditions named, come on Kip, I can remember his name, Thomas Young. And Thomas Young, there was a group, it's several years later I think, called Three Black Tenors. And he was one of them. And he just knocked Elijah outta the park and we're saying, great. Super. And then before he leaves he said, "You know, I'm also a jazz singer and I got a gig at the West End Cafe tonight. You guys should come by and check it out." So we went and heard him and Tony turns to me and says, "He's gonna be Street too, I'm gonna rewrite it, it's gonna be a tenor part." And that's what it was. So you're looking like you got a question.

Hernease Davis ’04 I do have a question. So I, and I'll preface this for people who are watching this to let them know that I've watched, so I also was able to see the opera in person at the Met. And I went on one the nights where Swarthmore gathered alums together. I also saw it broadcast in a theater. So I've seen, and I've also have been watching certain clips over and over and over again. And so I've, I apologize, I have so many questions. One of the-

Kip Davis ’75 Cut me off. Whenever you want me to move on. Its fine.

Hernease Davis ’04 So, because I'm kind of in, I'm really interested in, and we will get to the metropolitan sort of the Detroit 2022, 2023 version of the opera, but I'm interested in how these roles kind of translate. But, so just to clarify that Street and Elijah were supposed to be two separate performers, and he chose them to be the same. And can you kind of talk about how that kind of factors into the story that you're...

Kip Davis ’75 Sure. Interesting thing is, the way the story developed was almost, it was subliminal in the level of agreement that Anthony, Thulani and I had about what we wanted the story to be. And it was almost like in hindsight that we, that I in particular, realized what it was I was doing. And that what it is, is that the autobiography itself is so riveting and one of its powers is that it, he creates a life for himself, 'cause all autobiography are in fact created works, where if you grew up in the south and your family or yourself was subject to racial terror, Malcolm says, "I'm your guy." I had that. And then if you were a kid who went to white schools and your teachers told you that you were only good enough to get a trade, he's that guy too. And then if you lived in a black ghetto in the north and everything was telling you that there was nothing that you could do with your life and that it wasn't worthwhile, there was nothing that you could do and that all you, the only option you felt was a life of crime, he's that guy too. And that was the magic of the autobiography. And for me, I wanted to flip that and say, okay, we as black people have this rage that we have to deal with. We didn't have a word for it at the time, but what happened to Malcolm is what we now call black trauma. So then what I was more interested is, okay, how do we deal with that going forward? And for me it's like, the story of X is a story of serial mentorship where different people present different worldviews so that Malcolm can deal with his rage. And the first is that Ella comes in, takes him to Boston and says, you know, if we just live in isolation, we can create a little Black world here that will just take care of us and we'll be fine. And then Street comes in and says, that's just BS. That there is no hope for us. We're never getting out of this. The world is divided into the exploited and the exploiter and you know what side you should be on. And the goal of the hustler persona to me, or the hustler worldview is a nihilistic view. It's like, what's the goal? To get to the point where you feel nothing at all. And then Malcolm ends up in prison, that second worldview doesn't work for him anymore. And then in comes his brother Reginald, who presents to him the worldview of The Nation of Islam. And that in, from where he is, saves his life. It gives him both a structure to explain what has happened to him. It gives him a stable world to live in, and it gives him a community that can support him and that lasts until in fact he grows out of it. And he discovers the pettiness, jealousy, and duplicity of The Nation and is left bereft again. And then that final, final conversion for him, he ends up having to do on his own. Which is pilgrimage to Mecca. So that's what the story we wanted to tell. And that's the story we do tell. And for us in particular, it is important that we recognize and represent the power of The Nation of Islam and how it really could take someone like Malcolm and save his life and present a worldview and a life that had meaning and had power. And act two, scene one is about that conversion and is trying to show how powerful that message and that world was. Okay?

Hernease Davis ’04 And can you talk, well, and so in terms of that story and the power of story, can you talk about the experience of premiering this? So finally getting this together, they finished writing it, you're able to cast it and can you share a little bit about that experience of the premier at the New York City Opera in '86? But also kind of speak to this-

Kip Davis ’75 Like maybe how we ended up at City Opera?

Hernease Davis ’04 How you ended up at City Opera. And then, but then there's a 37 year gap. And I'm not assuming that, you know, that anyone knows why or anything like that. But how and why did it eventually end up at the Met? Why is it in the picture again now?

Kip Davis ’75 All right, so, we've always thought that since we were downtown artists, it would be a downtown piece. We ended up getting a workshop to finish working on the piece through the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And we always assumed that the piece would be performed at Bam. They had the connections to Anthony's world in terms of being an avant-garde composer. And on the downtown scene, we thought that'd be a good match, whatever. And then Bam wouldn't give us the Opera House. I said, you know, it's an opera, you know that, right? But they wanted it in the theater. They didn't want it in the Opera house. And we said, we need a pit! No, no, no, no, no. And so, like, so what was the problem? And we eventually figured it out that while the music was modern, the story for them was not because it was narrative. And, you know, they were in that whole postmodern phase where, you know, everything is meta, everything is commented on something, but our stories hadn't been told conventionally yet. And so it was important for us to get our story out there straight without commentary. I mean, the whole point of meta is that the author is as important, if not more important than the subject. And that's not us. That's not how we viewed trying to do the life of Malcolm X. Malcolm X was far more important than we were and was important that we told that story. And so there was resistance. I mean, you know, there were pieces that were downtown that it's like, you know, a turtle wandering through a model of a city. You know, it's like, why? I don't know. You know, for black people who have stories that need to be told, we're not gonna do pieces about turtles wandering through models of cities. I'm sorry, Meredith Muck. But that's what we do. And so we were really discouraged. We were gonna do a last run through of the work that we had done at Bam. And Anthony had a friend who had sung at City Opera who said, "Well, let me see what I can do." And got the artistic director of City Opera, Christopher Keen to come to this final performance or this walkthrough. So I go out on the chairs and reserves some seats, and I put down Christopher Keen's name, and the cast comes over and looks at it and say, "Christopher Keen is coming?" And I said, "What, do you think we were playing?" Great moment. So anyway, then it was decided we would go to City Opera. But then there's a whole other set of problems. They could relate to the narrative and that you're telling a story, but they had no black singers on their roster. And the music requires that you bring like eight improvisers and drop them into the orchestra. Okay? So this makes it like really expensive.

Hernease Davis ’04 And so do you think that like contributed to, well, first of all again, does that contribute to why it disappeared?

Kip Davis ’75 Well, I'll tell you why it disappeared. We sold out City opera. And after the last performance, Thulani's coming down an elevator with Beverly Sills, and she says to Thulani, "It was so wonderful, too bad nobody came." And Thulani's going like, what? And then she goes, "Oh, your subscribers didn't come." And so in those days, in the eighties, companies functioned off their subscriber base and keeping their subscriber base happening. But over the past 37 years, that subscriber base has aged and shrunk. And all these opera companies, including the Met, were having trouble, and they found that it was new works that were bringing in the audiences. Not the old war horses, and that they needed to develop new audiences. That's what Opera America had recognized back in the eighties and was trying to cultivate. But the big boys could get away with not having to deal with it until, you know, 30 some odd years later. 'Cause the pieces that sold the most tickets for the Met last year were their new works. And this year, the piece that sold the most tickets outta their new works was us. And the thing was, they're a, you know, if you do like white avant garde opera, you bring in the avant garde people. You do black avant garde music, you bring in the avant garde people, and all these black people too. You saw what the house looked like at the Met. And the thing was that it was relatable to go to mainstream black audiences. They got it. And that was cool.

Hernease Davis ’04 And how much do you think of that as being a part of the narrative or even a part of the story?

Kip Davis ’75 A lot, I kind of underestimated the value of the story for all these years.

Hernease Davis ’04 As a story writer?

Kip Davis ’75 Yeah. I mean, as me, right? And it, I thought of it as a piece of a whole. And when we got back together to work on it for Detroit, the two things that struck me was, man, this music is incredible. Two, we've got really creative production team here who's managed to reimagine what we did for a contemporary audience. Those are the two things that hit me. And then I went to every performance at the Met, and every time I was stunned, the people came up to me and said, what really hit them was the story. And I thought about it and I said, well, yeah, the story is the way in.

Hernease Davis ’04 Yeah. And I'll say, it's something I've been thinking about 'cause I've been going through the autobiography of Malcolm X and also in our conversations around your opera kind of flanking these distinctions between opera genres. And you know, I have very limited experience with opera as a form, or the history of opera, but just in my experience and particularly going to see the broadcast live, I went with a very, I'll say, advanced opera watching crowd where they were extremely excited about Malcolm X. It was a predominantly white crowd, but they were also extremely excited about the Met doing these series of quote unquote "Modern operas." And so through those conversations, kind of learn what that meant and what that distinction is because in other traditions and other arts traditions, idea of modern is very different. And so, but through our conversations and even talking about the struggle of where the opera ended up, you kind of flank this distinction and even kind of obliterate these genres of traditional versus modern. And I think that also is a part of Malcolm bio autobiography because it's autobiography, but it also is oral history. It's story, it's also something that I enjoy reading out loud rather than having in my head. Because there also is a rhythm and a language that is more familiar and conversational in the way that autobiography reads. And so it's not quite autobiography, it's kind of biography, it's kind of prose, it's kind of poetry. It's all these things. And so I kind of think of those as running together as what makes that story so compelling, but also makes this opera in and of itself why narrative to me is so important and how important to people are coming to watch this opera.

Kip Davis ’75 Well, you know, as black artists and black people, you know, I really believe that we are the great synthesizers. We take in all these different elements, whether it be from western culture, African culture, whatever, and we make it our own. And that's what X is. It's a synthesis of classical operatic tradition and what black people do, sing, and feel.

Hernease Davis ’04 Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that I, and I hope we have time for this, but I really want you to talk a bit about the elements of the music and how it kind of goes with the narrative. But thinking about this taking from different elements and having to put them together and also thinking about the difficulties of the production of the opera in '80, '86 versus now, particularly with the improvisation that goes along with it. Can you kind of, can you kind of talk about that and how the narrative and the music play together?

Kip Davis ’75 Okay. If you take a look at act one, there's no break. It just rolls. And there's, in Anthony's music, there is almost always a propulsive rhythmic drive underneath what's happening, underneath the lyrical line of the singing. Right? And so it jumps off with a very complicated choral piece that we call Africa for Africans. And it just rolls straight on through without stopping, without anybody getting a chance to breathe or applaud until the end of act one when Malcolm is finally given voice. And explains, you know, his rage. And then he stalks off stage, boom, end of act one. That same propulsive rhythmic energy underlies act two, scene one, which again, is like nonstop, and builds and more and more elements are added as the scene goes on. You know, it starts with prisoners and Reginald and Malcolm, and then you get prisoners and Malcolm and Reginald, and then The Nation enters with Elijah Muhammad as the Deus Ex Machina coming in on the staircase. And then you've got, you know, surrounded by the Women in White and the FOI guys. And then it keeps building more. Then you get the Afrofuturist Chorus on top of that in the background, sort of watching the whole thing. And then you bring in these dancers at the end and have a John Coltrane saxophone solo, and that ends with "Allahu Akbar!" Boom! And the curtain comes down. And so it's all this, it's about layers. It's about propulsive energy, and it's about forward movement, and it creates physically excitement. I've watched that clip that we sent out 20 times, and when that, the horns come in at the end, I'm just bopping. I'm just juiced, I'm ready to go. And then it's like, you know, Malcolm, you know, spread the word. And Elijah holds those notes for God knows how long to send him off into the world as the Malcolm X we know. Just, oh. And then there's, you know, the second resolution comes with We Are a Nation, which is much, it's much more slower, and then the world dissolves. And then, you know, then it picks up, it sort of stays in that meditative mode after the, through Mecca and then gets totally blown out by the riot. Right?

Hernease Davis ’04 Right.

Kip Davis ’75 And then it's just chaos until he dies.

Hernease Davis ’04 Yeah. I mean, there are all these, because you said so. I kind of, there are all these elements that are introducing so much, like so many different elements are always happening on the stage. And so that also brings to mind, and something that you kind of mentioned how Afrofuturistic the chorus is, but there are other elements of this that are Afrofuturistic. And can you talk about why Afrofuturism for Malcolm X? Anything else that you'd like to add about this stage production or anything about it that...

Kip Davis ’75 Okay, here's the deal. When we did the piece in '86, Thulani and Anthony and I had personal recollections of Malcolm X and The Nation, by the time '86 comes around, a lot of the performers didn't. And for us, in looking back on it, it was a piece of nostalgia for us. Thulani and I spent an inordinate amount of time bringing in photos showing like what the rallies look like, showing what the women dressed, showing what an FOI is, how an FOI holds himself, what Zoot suits are, what that whole thing was. And then 37 years later, you got a whole generation that has no firsthand experience with The Nation, with Elijah Muhammad, with Malcolm, any of it. And we realized when we were interviewing directors that what we needed, what somebody who could take this piece and bring it in to the 21st century and make it connect with contemporary audiences. Right? And then Thulani and Anthony and I had sort of lived with the notion that it was material for a traditional opera house for 37 years after with City Opera. We'd already made that jump. But for Robert O'Hara, the director, his thought was that having X at the Met was like revolutionary. This was explosive. That this was groundbreaking. And so he came up with this image that X is gonna crash into the Met and we're gonna take it over. And much more like confrontational approach than we had. Right? And so then he came up with, "Okay, how are we going to relay all this information?" And then he had came up with an, what we call an Afrofuturistic vision, which is that all of our history is out there out of time. And this spaceship comes in and delivers that history to this moment, to this piece. So contrary to, you know, ironically, to how we had conceived and fought for the piece years earlier. Lo and behold, the creative team comes in and wants to meta the piece up. So there we are in this meta world, right? And so he has this vision of like, the whole story sort of being downloaded from this spaceship into the cast and proceeding from there. So we're like damn, that's crazy. But who are we to judge? He's the guy, the new guy. We are looking for a new vision. Go with it. You know, we'd lived with one version of that production from '86, all this time, and we were starting to think we would never get to see another in our lifetime. So it was like, hey man, do what you want. And then two weird things happened that were specifically connected to the Met. Because Robert had this vision, he was able to incorporate two bizarre events and make it even better. One, the Met had decided who was gonna play Malcolm. There was somebody else who had done Detroit, who looked eerily like Malcolm, that we wanted to have do the role, but the Met had cast him in another production later in the year. And unlike '86, they've got black singers on their roster, and they want to build their careers and get work. So we get this other guy and Robert says, "He doesn't look like Malcolm. How are we gonna do this? This is ridiculous, blah!" And then he goes, oh yeah, he's gonna use that spaceship that is beaming down the story to the cast to beam down Malcolm into this man. So he comes out in the opening in street clothes. There's this light that comes down, he's opens his arms and he takes it all in. And then through the lucky circumstance that he'd already had an Afrofuturistic vision of the piece made that work. The second weird thing was that the Met's a huge, huge stage. Huge, huge theater. Okay? Well we did a did it in Detroit and we did it in, we had 12 ensemble members. I think we did in '86, we had eight. This whole piece involves the ensemble extensively. There are very few moments that are sung simply by principles alone. They're interacting with the ensemble who are the community. Right? There are also strong singers who are given solo lines throughout. Right? And so then Anthony and the director get together and says, "Well, we need more than 12. This is the Met." Just says, "Okay, let's double it and do it with 24." And so the director goes off, he's staging the production in his mind. He's got it down scene by scene by scene. And then Anthony has a meeting with the chorus master of the Met, who's somebody he worked with years before in Chicago, and he says, "We need a bigger sound, we need more voices." So what are we gonna do? Well, let's double it again and make it 48. Do they tell the directors? No. So that like, we're a couple weeks before we're going to start staging. And the director goes, "I got 48 people?" says "I can't stage 48 people. What the hell am I gonna do?" And then he goes, "Ah, they're going to be the ancestors and the descendants who come down from the spaceship and view the action that happens in the opera." Boom!

Hernease Davis ’04 And I have to say that it adds onto, so even thinking about the spaceship or this, so the meta part of it this irony of making it this modern element on this opera that you kind of like, have been very resistant towards, but the even this metaness is a part of the story or the narrative, of course. And it's the story of black history and also to me there's this motif of ships, even thinking about the history of Marcus Garvey and then-

Kip Davis ’75 Taking the black ship, black star home, is as exactly Robert said. I mean, you know, if you're thinking about that in 1920, it might as well be a spaceship. It might as well.

Hernease Davis ’04 And in thinking about how, like in thinking of the ancestors, how that is in and of itself, like a meta element that they're outside of space and time, outside of these dimensions or, you know, kind of this omnipresence on stage. And you can kind of take with it whatever you want. It could be, they could be aliens from the future who look like black people from another planet, or the ancestors, like the costuming and the hair design itself lent a lot to just being interpreted however we wanted it. However we needed it.

Kip Davis ’75 Well, we had a brilliant production team, and I want to give a shout out to Dede Ayite. Who was a costume designer who was born in Ghana and is working all the time now in the States. And she came up with these costumes for the Afrofuturistic chorus. Right? And I've never seen performers so thrilled with their costumes when they first put that on. And they, singers came to me and said, somebody sees us in a way that they felt they had never been seen before.

Hernease Davis ’04 Yeah. And it looked amazing. Okay. So we're at 8:48. Eastern Coast time. And so I wanna give us some time to answer some questions, but before we go to questions, we have a couple, you have chosen a clip for registrants to watch specifically act two, scene one, and all that we've spoken about, the genre, the history, and all of that kind of plays together in act two, scene one. And thinking of these decisions and even thinking of that as being like a very important scene that was written.

Kip Davis ’75 Oh yeah. It's key.

Hernease Davis ’04 So how does this, how does Act two scene one factor into this conversation?

Kip Davis ’75 Okay. It's got Afrofuturistic elements to it. It drives, it is like act one. It gives you the raw material from which Malcolm X is created. And act two, scene one creates it. And it uses all the elements that we've described previously, whether it be Afrofuturistic or whatever. And if we have a minute, I've got a couple of clips that I can show that sort of describe it. Does that work for you?

Hernease Davis ’04 Yes.

Kip Davis ’75 Cool. And let's hope that technology Gods are with us.

Hernease Davis ’04 All right. So we have a couple minutes.

Kip Davis ’75 All right. I could do it fast. Okay. This is the opening of act two, scene one. Okay? Now you could see how, because the piece is out of space and time, any space that's created is done mostly through light. And so you've got these beams of light coming down for this set of prisoners that open Act two. Then you could see the use of projections up top that place it in a specific time, in a specific place. This is when Reginald has come in to visit his brother. And you could see that, that all the, almost all the moments in a piece occur in a community. And here it's a community of prisoners. Okay. Now what Reginald does is he doesn't only just impact Malcolm, he impacts the prisoners, the screen rises, he walks back and as he's telling the story about how our past was stolen and taken from us, he touches each one of the prisoners. And as he does, they straighten up just as you straighten up when you join The Nation. Okay? Then when he talks about Elijah Muhammad, there is actually a projection of the actual Elijah Muhammad on the stage above. Again, you know, his presence is being brought down into the story from above, from the spaceship. And then when Elijah enters, it really is in that kind of classic tragic sense, it's a Deus Ex Machina, because they're not in the same place physically. Most of their relationship is done through letters until Malcolm is released from prison. So to indicate part of that separation is that Elijah is up on that ladder. And here you can start to see that the forces that make the scene are multiplying. And you've got, now you've got, for the first time women present and they're all dressed in the traditional garb of The Nation of Islam. And then at this point, then Malcolm and Elijah can have that first contact together alone. 'Cause he is outta prison. And then you have the projection of the X, of what he's going to become behind them. Then the light changes and you have the X, you have Elijah, you have Malcolm, and you see the forces starting to grow. You've got the prisoners who are all straight up. Now you've got the women on one side, the men on the other. And then you add the Afrofuturistic chorus. We're watching it all. Just look at those costumes, look at that makeup and look at that commitment to the performance.

Hernease Davis ’04 And that's one thing that I really loved about the broadcast, because we could get these closeups and just see all of these elements just gorgeous, beautiful. They're beautiful at the Met and they're beautiful from that perspective.

Kip Davis ’75 And, you know, here's another shot of them with the FOI, who are the security force within The Nation of Islam. Notice the posture, notice how they're holding their hands. Okay? And then you start bringing in the kitchen sink. And you've already added the Afrofuturistic chorus. Malcolm and Elijah are exiting because he, you know, Malcolm has sent him on his way, spread his word, and then we end up with everything happening. So that's kind of a little quick tour of that. I was gonna say that I asked Anthony about the rhythmic drive that is behind this scene. And I said, can you, you know, at least, you know, give me like, the time signatures that happen in it because it's so propulsive and it ends up in such, I think Anthony's always managed to write really great like Marshall music. And when those horns come in at the end, it's just, I'm just pumped, I'm pumped and I'm, you know, I'm ready to go out and spread this word too. And for a while, it took Anthony a long time to get back to me. He says, you know, "All I want is like time signatures. Like, what the hell's going on here?" And he finally gets back to me with essentially a page and a half single spaced document of what he's doing musically in act two, scene one. And I'll just read like a tiny little section because I don't want, oh, I'll just do the first one 'cause we're running out of time. "Act two, scene one begins in the Devil's Grip, which is in 2/4. In measure 33, the music moves to a faster tempo in 13 eight, as music from the dance hall returns over the ostinato. This section is, You Got My Letter after the end of Reginald's solo, I Met a Man Who Showed Me The Truth. The music moves to 15/18 an off kilter rock rhythm under Malcolm's response, the time stops and moves to 4/4 with rubato at They're Ready to Nail Me. The rhythm is freer like recitative under, Have You Ever Met a Man Who Knows All Things, the tempo and meter changes, giving space and weight to the voice, the music moves in a steady 4/4 under Reginald, Your Past Was Stolen as the conversation begins with a hypnotic drone in 4/4 in A flat." It's just, yeah.

Hernease Davis ’04 And I'll say that I have a copy of that. I read it while watching, re-watching that clip. And there are portions of it where it coincides with the feeling. And so for those who are looking forward to watching this opera in person, it is something to pay attention to the feeling that you have, but also that the music and the narrative. But the music is really driving not only the narrative, but there also is this like kind of in this narrative that we also go through that I actually, I'll just speak for myself, went through emotionally because it goes in and out of music that's familiar, but also this off kilter with this very, these very quickly changing time signatures. That's really, I could go off, I can go on all day, but let me not, so I'm going to-

Kip Davis ’75 Let's get a question.

Hernease Davis ’04  Yes. I'm gonna start off with a couple of questions from John Goodman. And John's questions are, "Where in Anthony's career did X come relative to the Central Park Five? And how did the '86 version of the opera affect the 2022 version of the opera?"

Kip Davis ’75 X was Anthony's first opera, I think Central Park Five is Anthony's seventh.

Hernease Davis ’04 Yes.

Kip Davis ’75 Okay? That Central Park Five was instrumental in us getting to the Met. Because it won the Pulitzer Prize. Okay? What was changed in X itself between the '86 production and the Met production was that there was an aria in act three or a duet in act three between Malcolm and Betty that was added, which is before Malcolm goes to confront Elijah Muhammad. And the inspiration for that addition came from all of the creative material that has come out about Malcolm since '86. We were like, in terms of major media, we were the first. We were before the Spike Lee movie, he came to the closing night party, we were before all of it. And the one that made an impression on Anthony was One Night in Miami. And in that, in the midst of that night, Malcolm makes a phone call home to check on the family. And that really hit Tony and Thulani hard. And they said, I wanna have a domestic moment there. And so their talk, they have a little one-on-one about their fears for the future and for their children after the girls had bopped down to see 'em. And it's like an opportunity to take your breath, to like slow down because you've been driving so hard. And I think it's a really good addition. So John, I hope that answers your questions.

Hernease Davis ’04 And we have next a question from Jeffrey Ruda. And Jeffrey asks, "Why does it matter whether or not the Malcolm X on the stage looks like the historical Malcolm X? Also thank you."

Kip Davis ’75  Okay. That's because everybody knows what he looks like. He's a historical figure. Okay? It's not like a character in a traditional opera. The director of the Met Peter Gallup says, "It only matters about the voice. It doesn't matter what he looks like." And we said, if you are relating an experience of people who've never been on this stage, you have to respect the reality that it's trying to represent. And for us, it was a strong incentive for us to have somebody who had a similar appearance. And you know, I think Robert did a great way of working around that. But that was the origin of it, is you didn't wanna insult people's memory of someone who they knew who they looked like.

Hernease Davis ’04 All right. Next question is from Nina Lebois. Nina is from Seattle.

Kip Davis ’75 Cool.

Hernease Davis ’04 And so then I'm assuming that the opera is traveling to Seattle?

Kip Davis ’75 Yeah. It opens Saturday. I'm going out this Thursday going to the dress rehearsal and then it opens on Saturday. Yeah.

Hernease Davis ’04 Great. And so Nina would like to know, "Will the staging be the same as the Met?"

Kip Davis ’75 Okay. It will not be the same. It'll be similar. The resources and scale of what the Met have is probably unmatched in North America. And we were fine with, Seattle was essentially believing they were getting the Detroit production. And since we hadn't seen it in 37 years, the Detroit production seemed fine. But we were really worried about like, what is it gonna be like to go from the Met back to that? And fortunately Anthony has been heavily involved in shortening the piece to be able to fit within Seattle's budget and the fact that they're only gonna have four dancers and 12. So he's cut the staging of the overture. He's replaced it with a shorter overture and he's reduced the dance hall music. Because we don't have the dancers to do it. Hopefully this means that we'll still be able to keep the act break the same. Which is ending with Malcolm's Aria act one and starting act two with act two scene one. In Detroit, because they had concerns about overtime, they only wanted one intermission and they threw act two scene one in before the intermission, which we hate. So we hope that the act break occurs at the end of Malcolm's aria. But I don't know, they haven't told me. So I'll know that on Thursday night. So Anthony's enthusiastic about the production. We've got a new Street and Elijah that we've never had before. We've got a new Malcolm we've never had before. As Anthony says, "It's big!" "What do you mean?" He says, "Malcolm's 6'6" and and Street is 6'2" He said we got a bigger kid too. There you go.

Hernease Davis ’04 Wow. Okay. And I guess, well this is kind of related. How, so KM wants to know, "How can we watch X online?" Oh, KM is Ken Moscowitz.

Kip Davis ’75 Go to your local PBS listing. It's on PBS, it started February 4th. If you've got PBS passport, you can see it on demand. That's the best way to see it. The one thing is because it's public, it's on normal broadcasting, they bleep every time the N word comes up. Which is kind of disturbing. Because it's like, that's the point. You know, it's black people singing. "We don't wanna be called the N word anymore." And then you bleep out the N word. And you've got Malcolm on the street saying, you know, "They called me the N word. They called me N word so many times I thought it was my name." And just, you know, what do you mean? Like we can't use it? We can't, you know. Anyway, that's another thing. But anyway, it's available on Passport. Go there, enjoy it. And yeah. And then hopefully if you live in the Chicago area, we'll be there sometime soon, maybe next year with a full Met production.

Hernease Davis ’04 Great. And I'm gonna bring up this next question 'cause it also has to deal with, since we're talking about this new production, but also it's a family affair. Christopher Leitch, I hope I'm pronouncing your last name correctly. Christopher says, "One extraordinary feature of this extraordinary opera is that it's a product of three related family members. Would you like to tell us a little about the benefits and challenges of working as a family team?"

Kip Davis ’75 Okay, problem one, I'm the baby. Okay. You got siblings, right? Where are you in birth order?

Hernease Davis ’04 I'm the oldest.

Kip Davis ’75 Well, there you go. So anyway, when push comes to shove, birth order surfaces. I had to like fight for my right and my place and I would do that. But we do understand each other. We do know how we work. We do have a great appreciation of the genius that is there. Chris came to a thing after opening night at my apartment and it was mostly my friends. Right? And then I invited my brother and his wife to come. So they're there and I'm feeling uncomfortable 'cause you know, people are talking about the wonderful work that I did for like an hour and a half and he's just kind of standing there. And then I said, "Well, let me say something here." And I said, "I really want everybody here to know that this man is a genius and that the work that he has done, that the music he is written is genius." And Chris said, "Whoa." He says, "I've never heard you say that about your brother." And I said, "Well, it's true."

Hernease Davis ’04 I really, I love that. I think it's quite amazing. And also it's just so funny because I think we had to kind of make this like distinction somewhere. I think it was in person when I came to see the performance during the Swarthmore night at the beginning of the production that we are not related. Like Davis is just, we just have Davis.

Kip Davis ’75 No relations. Right.

Hernease Davis ’04 Not related.

Kip Davis ’75 You're welcome to join the party, but I'm sure you've got great folks in LA that you love dearly.

Hernease Davis ’04 I mean, because it is something that I know you all have been living with almost as if it's a normal thing. But, and so I think it's wonderful that people are able to witness you appreciating one another. Because it is, it's quite extraordinary. So thank you Christopher. Speaking of, I don't even know, I'm going to chance it and just read this question. So from Robert Mueller. So Robert asked, "Can Tony's writeup be shared?" And Robert's question actually was my question that I was kind of holding back because reading Anthony's characterization of act two, scene one really was another layer that I thought was really beautiful and extraordinary. So you don't have to answer it, but that's Robert's question. That's also my question.

Kip Davis ’75 Well, so you could, Bob, I will send it, I'll send you Tony's email. Okay. How's that? And I suppose we can figure out from the college whether there's a way to distribute it more generally. And I'll have to ask my brother if I have his permission to do so.

Hernease Davis ’04 Great. And we just have some other, you know, accolades. So from Isaac Stanley, class of '73 says, "Congratulations Kip, I enjoyed the met production. Looking forward to seeing the performance in Chicago." And a last sign up from Ken Moscowitz. Ken lives in Japan and doesn't think that PBS Passport is available, but he'll find a way. So if there are other international alumni who are on the call, who are on the Zoom, not the call, on the Zoom, then you know, we'll, you know, I don't know. I'm gonna hand it to you, Kip, to kind of solve that problem.

Kip Davis ’75 Well the thing is the Met really sort of rigorously controls access. It was a whole process that was probably six weeks long to get that 20 minute clip.

Hernease Davis ’04 So I'm not sure what I can do for you, Ken. And I'm sorry.

Kip Davis ’75 Well Kip, we've come to our time. I just wanna give you the last word, but also just thank you so much and also to say how much I've appreciated learning. I still am learning so much. There's still so many things that have gone into this that blow my mind, but also have helped me appreciate and learn so much more about the form of opera, but also in learning more about you and your family, but also the process of making this piece of work. But is there any last thing you would like to leave us with before we say goodnight?

Hernease Davis ’04 Actually, yes, there is. That this opera would not have happened if the curriculum of Swarthmore College hadn't been revolutionized a few years before I got there. The Seven Sisters and the Brother forced this college to acknowledge its debt to black people and actually start to teach black studies in a rigorous way. This piece would not happen if there hadn't been courses like Chuck James' course for the idea to be born when Elijah Muhammad says, "Your past is stolen, taken from you." That was all of us until the Black Studies movement in the late sixties and seventies came in and now we have an opportunity to know who we are and to use that power for whatever it is we wanna do. That's it.

Hernease Davis ’04 Amazing. Thank you so much, Kip.

Kip Davis ’75 Okay, well it's a pleasure, my dear.

Hernease Davis ’04 Yeah, it's just so wonderful and thank you to everyone who's here and I hate to, because, okay, so I just wanna add on one more thing Kip, because I've been thinking about, I've been thinking about that and thinking about that class, and I'm the class of 2004, so I'm, you know, millennial and of course, you know, we're on our 20th reunion this year, but I took an African American history class from Dr. Allison Dorsey. And your experience with Chuck James was similar to my experience. I've been thinking about that and also thinking about that portion in autobiography where Michael X is talking about how the reading, how reading and being exposed to histories that have been covered changed him. And your experience with Chuck James was my experience with Dr. Dorsey, it's one of those things that changed my life at Swarthmore College. So...

Kip Davis ’75 One other thing is that those courses don't exist in isolation. They are in communication with the rest of the courses that I took at the college at the time. So my notion of what the narrative should be in X comes from Lee Devon's play analysis class. So that the material I got from Chuck is then processed through the rigor that I learned in play analysis.

Hernease Davis ’04 It's all connected. Great. Oh my gosh. Well, thank you everyone. And I don't know if Ayanna or anyone else would like to come on and dismiss us, but, 'cause I don't know which in this, and also I wanna acknowledge that there are other people in the chat who are asking about access to seeing X online. And so just wanna read Jane Srivastava who, or Srivastava, I'm sorry if I'm mispronouncing your last name. And Jane says, "I live in Canada, but donate to KCTS in Seattle and thus have access to Passport. Perhaps Ken who lives in Japan could do something similar." So that's just a suggestion from Jane. So all right.

Kip Davis ’75 Bye-Bye.

Ayana Johnson ’09 Thank you so much. This was an amazing, amazing conversation. Thanks everyone for joining tonight and make sure you tell your friends about this SwatTalk 'cause the recording will be posted soon. And it's such a great honor to really hear the inner workings and the behind the scenes and all of the inspiration that led us to this moment. So thank you so much Kip, and thank you Hernease for moderating. Hope everyone has a good evening.

Kip Davis ’75 All right, goodnight.

Kip Davis ’75 Thank you, SwatTalks. Bye-Bye

Ayana Johnson ’09 Bye.