According to the play written by Yusef Salaam and directed by Ward Nixon, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad began realizing the need to change some of his teachings in the latter years of his life. Particularly, the teaching that all white people were devils. This philosophy became more and more difficult to uphold particularly when some of his own members were the product of miscegenation. Ivan Goris played the role of Washington X, the Chief Editor of Muhammad Speaks. Washington X was very concerned that his beloved mother (a white woman), was being depicted as a “devil” according to the teachings of the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, whose early witnessing of the lynching of black men by white men solidified his belief whites were devils.
While initially, Elijah Muhammad stood strong in his positions and policies, others chipped away at his resolve little by little. After being given a million dollar donation by the Arabs to help the Nation continue its varied industries, etc., a Saudi official of the King Faoruk Bank, Ali Abdulah (Jared Reinmuth), challenged Muhammad’s interpretation of the Qu’ran stating to him ‘all men are the same.’ The negative political implications resulting in the ‘white devil’ teaching was also brought to the Minister’s attention by Rev. Lillian Jones (Valerie Tekosky), whose political aspirations prompted her to ask Muhammad for his endorsement. Both Ali Abdulah and Rev. Jones were soundly rebuked by Muhammad who was adamant about his own interpretation of the Qu’ran and his right to run his organization as he saw fit, irrespective of million dollar contributions and political approval.
During his early years, Mr. Muhammad’s birth name was Elijah Poole. During that time, Elijah knew poverty, hardship, and racism. His family’s finances caused Elijah to quit school after third grade in order to help his family sharecrop. It was during those times in Sandersville, and then Macon, Georgia, wherein Poole was witness to the abject cruelty of white people toward people of color.
America’s racial situation continued even after Elijah and his family moved to Detroit, then Chicago. In the 1930’s, lynching, race riots and other forms of terrorism against Blacks and other peoples of color, continued unabated with the justice system skewed in favor of the white race. The Black race was in need of a savior. That savior made his appearance in the form of Master W. Fard Muhammad who set Black communities afire with his proselytizing and message. A message which told African Americans to cast off their slave names and take on religious tenet that professed a belief in one God, Allah. According to a statement Allah made contained within the Qu’ran – Allah would choose for his own the rejected and the despised. And, who more so than Black people, have been so severely oppressed, rejected and despised. Fard’s teachings stated it was the Black people that God truly supported. Elijah Poole gravitated to this message and eventually became a friend and student of Master Fard who eventually made Poole a trusted minister within the Nation of Islam. At first, Fard gave Poole the name Karriem and later Muhummad, the Supreme Minister.
Ralph McCain adeptly played the role of Mr. Muhammad, giving a personable and scholarly demeanor to the character. However, it seemed that there was internal strife and discontent within the ranks of the Nation of Islam, causing in some cases, an opportunity for CIA infiltration and espionage. Further, even one of their beloved national spokespersons began to reject some of the Nation’s teachings after going to Mecca where he saw all the colors of man praying together. Malcolm X could no longer support the idea that all whites were devils nor could he accept Elijah’s rumored dalliances with women. So, in 1964, Malcolm X separated from the Nation of Islam and formed his own organization. This caused a rift between Elijah and Malcolm X which the play suggests in time healed.
Period costumes by June Terry, lighting and sound by Derrick Minter and stage management by Joyce Pena painted an accurate picture of the era in which events took place.
The convincing performance by Mr. McCain presents to the viewer a human side of the great leader, especially in a scene with his wife Clara Muhammad, played by Joan Valentina, where Elijah’s playful and loving side is revealed. It seemed Elijah was a man plagued by illness, death threats, suspicion and pressure to change. He struggles to overcome his own demons and the betrayal of those he loves and trusts. One betrayal manifests via his trusted bodyguard and personal secretary, Samuel X, played with great fervor by Albert Eggleston. Eggleston plays a devious and sly instigator who whispers unfounded allegations into the ear of Mr. Muhammad in order to plant seeds of distrust in Muhammad’s mind toward some of his faithful members. Using the strategy of ‘divide and conquer,’ Samuel X deftly causes dissension within the ranks pitting the security captain portrayed by Tomike Ogugua against Sister Maryum (Cookie Winborn), Muhummad’s office secretary, whom the captain suspects of stealing despite her protestations to the contrary. By the time the true culprit is discovered much harm has been done.
The play depicts the measure of a man. Faced with the realization the only constant in life is change, one’s ability to change in the face of change, becomes the true definer. Therein lie the quandary within the production of “The Devil and Elijah Muhammad.”
The Hadley Players upcoming season presents “Arye” by Louise Mike, February 28-March 11, 2012 and “This Way Forward” by Gertrude Jeannette, May 22 – June 3, 2012.
Deardra Shuler is a well published journalist who has profiled celebrities and written about people of note for many years. In addition to her column at EURweb.com, she is the host of her radio show “Topically Yours” on BlakeRadio.com and has shows featured on NPR via Initiative Radio. Ms. Shuler is featured in several papers. Her international column in Sweden,”Music Pastures” is available at http://soulinterviews.com. Interested parties can acquire info regarding Deardra through Writspirit.com, tagged.com, facebook and google.