​The Acting Company to bring two touring productions to the Valley with company’s first all-black cast

The tour includes performances of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' as well as a new play about the life and assassination of Malcolm X, titled 'X'

In the midst of a tumultuous transition of political power, the arts have a unique ability to put today’s events into the context of history.

That is the belief of The Acting Company, a New York City-based theater company bringing its two latest productions to the Valley this week: Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and Marcus Gardley’s new play about the assassination of Malcolm X, titled “X.”

Lisa Gutting, The Acting Company’s director of education and development, said at their core, the two productions—while set in completely different time periods—have similar themes.

“There are interesting connections on … why a man rising to power is being taken down in an assassination (and) the conspiracy theories that then come forth,” she said. “We hope the audience will make connections to what they’ve seen onstage and want to know more, to do their own historical digging into both Julius Caesar and Malcolm X.”

Although this is the official world premiere of “X,” this isn’t the first time it has come to ASU: in Dec. 2015, the playwright and director came to Tempe to work with ASU Herberger students in the production’s first workshop.

Gutting said the play wouldn’t be what it is today without their collaboration with ASU.

“It accelerated the development process in a way I don’t think any of us could have imagined,” Gutting said. “It was integral to (Gardley’s) writing process.”

Gutting said that the play “was very raw when it came to ASU, (but) by the end of the workshop it had bones.”

The production continued on through another year of development with several more workshops, but now it’s back in the Valley to kick off its first national tour.

William Sturdivant, who plays Cassius in “Julius Caesar” and Elijah Muhammad in “X,” said he was involved in the workshops at ASU and looks forward to reconnecting with students this week.

“(The Acting Company) has changed the model of touring and focused it more on going into these communities and engaging with students, with teachers, with thinkers, with the communities, so it’s not like we’re just touring through,” he said.

Sturdivant said he also looks forward to this particular season because it’s The Acting Company’s first all-black cast.

“As an actor, I’ve never actually been in a cast like that before,” he said. “When I was in middle school and high school, I didn’t think that I could really do Shakespeare, (because) I never saw it performed by black people. I think it’s empowering to see that displayed onstage.”

Whether he is playing Peter Pan or a Shakespeare character, Sturdivant said he hopes his acting roles continue to inspire the next generation.

“It’s a way to give voices to the minority, and a lot of places need to hear that voice loud and proud, strong and beautifully spoken,” he said.

Chelsea Williams, who plays Portia in “Julius Caesar” and Betty Shabazz in “X,” said it is important to have theater reflect what’s happening in the audience members’ day-to-day lives.

“I can think back to my childhood and I can’t recall a time I’ve ever had the opportunity to see a play with ten black actors doing Shakespeare,” she said. “I wish I had that opportunity. I think my life would have been a little bit different.”

Williams said the arts enable us as a society to tell and hear the stories of each individual person, regardless of their background.

“There are so many different ways to classify diversity,” Williams said. “I feel like no two black people are alike just because they are black, and I feel the same way about any other ethnicity or orientation. No two people are the same. When we start to tell stories, we should always start with that, not with a stereotype of what you are to expect from one group of people. Starting from there I think will help change and help diversify the art world — not just theater, but all across the board, all forms of art.”

The Acting Company’s production of "Julius Caesar” opens with one performance at the Herberger Theater on Tuesday, Jan. 31. Their production of “X” opens Wednesday, Feb. 1. Tickets can be purchased on the Herberger Theater website.

After the limited engagement at Herberger, both shows will move to the Mesa Arts Center, where “X” runs Feb. 2-3 and “Julius Caesar” runs Feb. 4-6. Tickets can be purchased here. ASU students can get $8 tickets with the code “ASUHIDA”.

Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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