There is no other way to describe Denzel Washington, whose acting career has spanned over four decades, other than a Hollywood icon. But this box office master actually honed his craft in theater. Among the many milestones in his journey, one significant role stands out: his portrayal of Malcolm X in the 1981 Off-Broadway play “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost.” This play delves into the complex relationship between Malcolm X and his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam.
The role paid Washington a modest $125 weekly, and at that time, he had only minimal awareness of Malcolm and had not read his autobiography. But he immersed himself in books, articles, tapes, and film footage about Malcolm X to prepare for the play, The New Federal Theatre reported.
“I didn’t have a view of Malcolm then,” Washington told The New York Times Magazine. He went on to recall his first reaction while preparing for the stage role, to reading books and articles by and about Malcolm, listening to hours of tape and watching film footage of Malcolm’s speeches: “I remember feeling two ways: Like this was heavy, mean stuff and also like this was helping me get some things off my chest. There was something invigorating about being able to say things you felt. I remember thinking what it must have felt like to be so free to be able to say anything. It must have made for tension.”
Washington has won multiple Tony Awards, Academy Awards, and Golden Globe Awards, among other accolades.
While his career started in theater, he gained prominence with roles in the medical drama series “St. Elsewhere” and later established himself as a leading man with standout performances in films like “Malcolm X,” “Philadelphia,” “Crimson Tide,” “Training Day,” and most recently the box office hit “The Equalizer,” among others.
In a career spanning over four decades, the actor has received numerous accolades, including a Tony Award, two Academy Awards, and three Golden Globe Awards. He is also a 13-time NAACP Image Award winner.
The play “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost” was written by Laurence Holder and is set in the early 1960s in Muhammad’s office, the play unveils the disintegration of their vital bond.
The play is set in Muhammad’s office in the early 1960’s. Muhammad has been served with paternity suits by two former secretaries; Malcolm is incredulous over the news. But even though Malcolm is upset with his mentor, he still offers “I love you like a father.” The play unpacks Malcolm’s subsequent break with the Nation and his newfound activism directive.
Washington’s stage performance was a critical success. Frank Rich of The New York Times, known for his tough reviews, wrote in his 1981 review that Washington’s “firm, likable performance” portrayed a Malcolm that was “honorable and altruistic without ever becoming a plaster saint, The New York Times reported.
Denzel Washington, 1981, New York City, in a performance of “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost” (YouTube screenshot, Tony Brown’s Journal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eu9qm64A08w)