Cornell S. John on Playing Malcolm X in the Age of Barack Obama

January 13, 2024
3 mins read


By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

Cornell S. John is a versatile actor; he was Uncle Curtis in Noel Clarke’s acclaimed drama Adulthood and Kidulthood, and he starred as Glenstorm (main picture) in fantasy adventure, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

Cornell, in a new production titled ‘The Meeting’, is about to play the legendary African American figure and civil rights martyr  Malcolm X, – whose real name is El Hajj Malik el Shabazz – and who was assassinated during America’s troubled decade of the 1960s. This production is written by the award-winning American writer Jeff Stetson and directed by Chuck Mike of Collective Artistes, and it kicks off a nationwide tour with an initial 10-day run at London’s Pleasance Theatre.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the mainstream media often caricature The Muslim Malcolm X as the antithesis of Baptist Preacher Martin Luther King Jnr; Malcolm X as a violent radical, and King as a peace loving pacifist. But in the form of an imagined conversation between these two great figures of the last century, The Meeting depicts a different image of both leaders – who only met briefly in real life – with Ray Shell playing Martin Luther King.

I spoke to Cornell S. John during a break in rehearsals about the continued relevance of these men in the age of Barack Obama. We also talked about his preparations for the play, what we can expect and his future plans.

Becoming Malcolm X?

What you do as an actor normally is try to avoid other performers’ performances … because it might influence your own performance.  Chuck Mike, the director, went to Jeff Stetson at his home and interviewed him; and was given an insight into how he [Stetson] saw the piece. One of the things that was clearly picked up was validation… especially for these two men; being able to validate themselves as men.

On the human side of historical figures?

It is down to the fact that these were both men who were drawn into this from two different directions but both [were] on the same page – to enhance the life and livelihood of Black people at the time. There is a part of the play where it comes down to their children – where the two off us are able to take off our personas and talk about family and just be men.

Obama is in the Presidency? – The martyrs dead for over 4 decades; what’s still relevant about them?

I think the simple answer to that is [that] until the playing field becomes even it is always going to be relevant. It will be relevant until it actually doesn’t become an issue. I think that’s a long time in the future. The message about these two characters really is hope – that they gave people hope. The message is always going to be there.

The Pleasance have incorporated an interactive exhibition, how do you think it will affect the audience?

I think it depends on the audience members really. This is also about reaching out to a younger audience; some people may not have heard anything about these characters. The exhibition at the front will give them a further insight. Their legacy is long [and] will always continue; without all these small steps we wouldn’t have this big leap of Obama’s arrival.

Stage or screen?

I think they both have their own merits. I think too much of any one of them and you want to jump back into the other one. I am mainly from a stage background [and] after this I would like to do something on screen – I think still have something to offer [to] the film world.

On equality and changes in the acting profession?

I have seen changes – I can’t say a lot because [remember] there is usually not the quality of character available. So in the work that we have on regular basis we are [often] left with somebody else’s interpretation [of our experiences]. It is taking a longer time than I would like.

Are there any other historical figures you would like to perform/play?

Not at the moment. I can only deal with one at a time! I am sure if I recover from this one I will be looking ahead. For me guys like Malcolm X probably shaped a lot of my youth; in their posture – to get up and speak the truth, to get up and do it… they allowed you to stand up and say it instead of avoiding the issues.

On touring the country:

Yes I’m looking forward to it; I am going to my home town of Birmingham so I can pick my accent again!

What is next for you after this run?

I am going to Jamaica to help on a new series [Kingston House] being promoted over there… a new teen drama which I am going to be directing.

The Meeting

By Jeff Stetson

Directed by Chuck Mike of Collective Artistes

Pleasance Theatre

Carpenters Mews
North Road
N7 9EF
0207 609 1800

On tour at: The Drum, Birmingham; New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth; Nuffield Theatre, Southampton; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich; and Bernie Grant Arts Centre, London.

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.


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