Michael X by Vanessa Walters, Tabernacle Centre, London W11, November 2008

  NOVEMBER 2008  
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The vast space of the Tabernacle Centre's upstairs theatre is transformed into a political meeting hall. A centre-stage table bears nothing but a water jug and glass. Behind, a banner hangs waiting to be unfurled. On either side of the stage photographs celebrating 1960s black activism are mounted on easels, poignant reminders of a past which, with the events of the last week in mind, seem a lifetime away. Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, all iconic figures mounted in equal prominence alongside shocking nineteenth-century posters announcing the latest sale of slaves, or the sickeningly precise naval drawings of a slave transporter ship. Small black figures lying in serried ranks represent the optimum positioning for this awful cargo. The commodification of the human body in all its horrific reality.

The stage is guarded by two security personnel, each slickly dressed in their black suits and ties and white shirts, each welcoming us as audience with that ominous warmth which ensures that, when the fictional collection buckets are finally distributed, all feel the discomfort of not putting our hands in our pockets.

Soon, a lone figure enters and proceeds to deliver a speech of remarkable power and humour. This is Michael X, the press's nickname for Michael de Freitas, who had, by now and following his conversion to Islam, adopted the name Michael Abdul Malik, a choice which mirrors that of Cassius Clay before him. Michael X, part-time pimp and drug dealer, and local strong-arm gangster for the notorious property racketeer Peter Rachman, addresses his own political rally.

The change, from local villain to vocal opponent of oppression, follows Michael's chance meeting with the famous American activist, Malcolm X. Michael's subsequent politicization is accompanied by an equally evangelical zeal to spread the word that life for a black individual in mid-twentieth-century Britain was no less racially charged than for those suffering segregation in the southern states of America or apartheid in South Africa. Michael X needed to make his British brothers wake up to the reality of life in a country where black remained negativized and white was firmly entrenched as superior and ‘pure'.

Of course, Michael had not always felt this way. As he admits, on his arrival onboard ship in the 1950s he could not hide his excitement and expectation for the ‘exotic' world that awaited him. Michael explains that the word ‘exotic' is so relative. To the British, ‘exotic' represents young women in grass skirts and hot, sand-covered beaches. To Michael X, exotic was a ‘white roof-topped house' or the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. It is ironic that, for this early migrant from the Caribbean, the ‘exoticism' of the ‘Mother Nation' should rely on such snow-white imagery for its fascination.

Michael X regales us with the tale of his journey, and of the world he finds on his arrival. Aware of the American Dream, he tells of the alternative Caribbean Dream. The Caribbean Dream was that of coming to London. In reality, Michael finds this dream shattered. Instead of an idyllic, exotic dream world, the nightmare reality is evoked by Michael's recollection of signs posted in windows by landladies eager to filter unwelcome applicants for their rooms. ‘No Blacks -- No Irish -- No Dogs.' Even before the actor playing Michael finishes his lines, members of the audience complete this bitter list, an uncomfortable reminder of the united outrage still felt about this particular community's past.

Clint Dyer plays the radicalized, and doomed, Michael X. Initially appearing less comfortable with his intimate engagement with the audience, Dyer soon developed a personal rapport which allowed him to re-present the arguments of his character. There is no denying that this is a tour de force for any actor. Vanessa Walters has created a play which develops its own narrative without forcing history down our uncomfortably dry throats. This is the fascinating tale of one unique individual, a tale which speaks volumes to its black and white audience.

Dawn Walton's direction is subtle and controlled, trusting her actor to engage the listener and trusting the piece to express its own anger and sense of betrayal. Ultimately, Michael X must be viewed as a thought-provoking and provocative work of immense power and integrity. It is almost shocking to discover that, by 1975, Michael will be found hanging from the gallows in a Trinidadian gaol, convicted of bloody murder. How far this was society's revenge against his overt attempts at radicalizing the black community, or how much it indicates the underlying violence in all his undertakings, must remain open to debate. What is important is that in Michael X, a voice is heard whose significance for all, black or white, seems as acceptable now as it seemed dangerously subversive then.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008

Premiered at the Tabernacle Centre, Powis Square, W11 on Thursday 6 November 2008, Michael X is part of Kensington and Chelsea Council's winter art season, ‘Across the Street, Around the World'. Tickets for the event cost £5 (plus 50p for online booking). To book call the box office on 0871 2715151 or online at The show starts at 7.30pm and runs on 6, 10, 13, 17, 24 and 27 November. For further information about the event call 020 7361 3204 or email