A new take on Michael X

November 18, 2008 — Review

Written by Harmit Athwal

A new play on Michael X provides a thought-provoking night out.

I had concerns that the new play by Vanessa Walters entitled Michael X might dwell on Michael X’s rather insalubrious past as the flyer for it suggests: ‘Who was Michael X? Black Power activist and political icon? Liar, pimp, murderer?’

Michael X, the play, was essentially a one-man show – well written and fast-moving. It takes the form of an imaginary speech (contained in a small book, Smoke Othello: A creative look at the historical Black presence in Kensington and Chelsea by Vanessa Walters which was given to all those who attended) by Michael X at a RAAS (Racial Adjustment Action Society) meeting in the 1960s. RAAS was the organisation set up by Michael X in 1965.

Michael X delivers the hour-long speech with gusto and had me enthralled – we really were attending a meeting of RAAS. He began by talking about the use and misuse of language, what brought him to the UK – the ‘motherland’ – and, from there, on a journey through British racism. The production was simple yet slick, like the snappy suits worn by Michael X and his two colleagues.

Clint Dyer plays Michael X as a one-man dynamo – eager to deliver his thoughts on the state of Britain and passionately. The speech was certainly of the time but still had parallels with today. Michael X mimics a White racist: ‘I’m not racist – what? I’m not, I’m just saying the government needs to close the door quick before the lot of you turn up and sink this bloody island’ – the sort of accusation nowadays levelled at asylum seekers and migrant workers (of all shades).

The play is light-hearted yet serious at the same time and left me intrigued (all over again) about pioneers of Black politics of Michael X’s ilk. Those who struggled and fought against the system but were eventually destroyed by it. Michael X, the play, did not deal with his later life and subsequent hanging for murder in Trinidad, but only his politically active time in London.

In the play Michael X says: ‘Yes, I was a drug peddler and a gangster. That’s one of the few things the newspapers got right about me. I acquired a bad reputation in Notting Hill. Well? There was no money, but people had to eat and the rent had to be paid … because I’ve lived it and since educated myself – changed myself as a person – I can look back and say the ghetto reduced my humanity … The pressures of the ghetto are constant, so someone has to be constantly working at helping the people there to become human again.’

It’s a shame that orators and leaders like Michael X are no longer around. Despite his chequered personal history, he fought, for a time, for the rights of ordinary Black people. Now we have government-sponsored Black role models and token Black faces in positions of ‘power’ – the Black police officer, the Black politician and the Black businessman. What do they have to say to us? That we too can achieve their positions of power? These people, I would argue, aren’t true role models, whose lives have resonance for those struggling in the ghettos today, but pimps for the state.

Go see Michael X at the Tabernacle in west London (it’s only on for another week) – it’s well worth it.

Related links

Eclipse Theatre

View a flyer for Michael X

Michael X – book online

Struggles for Black Community DVD includes a film on Ladbroke Grove

Tickets: £5. Box office: 0871 271 5151. Or book online at the link below. Eclipse Theatre (under the direction of Dawn Walton) which is responsible for the production, of Michael X, is also producing a play based on Kester Aspden's book, The Hounding of David Olulwale, which will commence in early January in Leeds' West Yorkshire Playhouse (31 January 2009 - 21 February 2009) and travel to Liverpool, Birmingham, Ipswich, Nottingham, Leeds, Exeter and Hackney. The book has been adapted for stage by Oladipo Agboluaje.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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