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Obie winner Roslyn Ruff resurrects Malcolm X's wife
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
Roslyn Ruff is so regal and commanding that she's been cast as the wives of two civil rights icons over the course of her extensive stage career. In 2014, she portrayed Coretta Scott King in the historical drama All the Way. Now she's playing the title character in The Acting Company's X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, currently running at the Theatre at St. Clement's.
In All the Way, her role was peripheral as the story focused on Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. But Betty Shabazz drives the action in Marcus Gardley's surreal examination of the life and death of Malcolm X, as his widow seeks to prosecute the Nation of Islam for her husband's assassination in a courtroom in purgatory.
X serves as a homecoming for Ruff, who joined the touring classical theatre troupe The Acting Company straight out of the MFA program at Harvard's American Repertory Theater. Her chemistry with Jimonn Cole, who plays Malcolm X in flashbacks, is no surprise since they costarred in two previous Acting Company productions: stage adaptations of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson and Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. "Jimonn played my son in that first show, and my brother in the other," Ruff says, laughing. "Now he's playing my husband! It's kind of cool and it's the beauty of family. The Acting Company is one of my theatre families."
Cole appeared in the world premiere of X last year when it ran in repertory with Julius Caesar, which heavily influenced Gardley's script. At an invitation from The Acting Company's artistic director, Ian Belknap, Ruff joined the cast for this encore engagement. Since X is now playing solo, the Shakespeare references have been pared down, but Ruff says the script still feels quite classical. "Marcus is a poet and he writes very lyrical text," she explains. "I've done quite a few playwrights who are also poets, and you have to figure out how to make the heightened language breathe and live so it doesn't sound like you're standing up there and just enunciating beautiful words. So in that sense it's like Shakespeare, which is why it terrifies me and why it's so exciting. I have to do something challenging and scary even though it stresses me the hell out."
Considering Ruff's track record in classical theatre -- she's known for doing the Bard and Chekhov, and won an Obie and a Lucille Lortel Award for her work in August Wilson plays -- you might wonder why she's so worried. But with X she has the added pressure of playing a historic figure. While she did an impressive amount of research in preparation for the show, she's not doing an impression of Betty Shabazz so much as channeling her essence. "Right now what I'm focusing on is courtroom Betty versus Betty in the flashbacks," Ruff says. "Marcus has given the story a lovely stylized treatment, which gives us a little bit more freedom to play. I'm working on making a different, more fun version of Betty in the courtroom versus trying to find an earthier, somewhat closer to who she really was Betty in the flashbacks. But there are moments when lawyer Betty is absolutely existing in both realities, so it's two things at once. I just love the complexity and trying to crack the nut of it."
Ruff says she's particularly invested in this project because she's a long-time "student of history," especially anything to do with African-Americans. As a child, she devoured the Ebony Pictorial History of Black America volumes in her leisure time because "I was so fascinated by our history and that which I could only really learn in those books or conversations in my home," she says. "For so long the powers that be were able to pick and choose the figures that we were allowed to learn about. If you wanted to know more you had to dig deep yourself. There are so many players of great significance throughout history -- but especially during the civil rights era -- that deserve to be known."
In that sense, X is quite illuminating for those who only think of Malcolm X as a militant. Gardley presents him as a multifaceted man: a husband, a father, a friend, an acolyte, an orator, and an activist whose views on civil rights were evolving when he was gunned down at the Audubon Ballroom in front of his pregnant wife and their children. "The beauty of it, something I keep going back to, is that Malcolm wasn't afraid to have one train of thought that was so well-known worldwide, and then to have an epiphany and say, 'This is where I am now,'" Ruff says. "He was one of our greatest thinkers who at the same time wasn't afraid to shift very publicly. I have so much respect and admiration for that, and it had fatal consequences in his case."
Top image: Roslyn Ruff and Jimonn Cole in X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.