Artist Profile: Thulani Davis, Famed Librettist of ‘Amistad’ & ‘The Life & Times of Malcolm X’

By Gillian Reinhard

Thulani Davis is best known as the librettist for two of the most acclaimed operas of the late-twentieth century—“X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” and “Amistad.” Both projects were in collaboration with her composer, the composer Anthony Davis.

Davis was born July 19, 1949 to parents from Virginia, but moved to New York City to attend Barnard College, graduating in 1970. Later, she studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University on track to study journalism. She took up a job writing for the “San Francisco Sun-Reporter,” and later became a poet based in the Bay Area. Davis returned to New York and worked for the “Village Voice” for 13 years.

In addition to opera, Davis lent her writing to other musical works, including the libretti to oratorio “Dark Passages” (1998) and to electronic opera “The E. & O. Line” (1989). She has also worked on two films, six books, and eight plays.

Major Works

In the 1980s, Davis first explored crafting opera libretti. Her first work, Anthony Davis’ “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X” premiered at the American Music Theater Festival on October 9, 1985. Later, it was also brought to the New York City Opera.

Davis and her cousin collaborated again to create “Amistad,” which was first shown at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997. Davis adapted the harrowing story of the enslaved Mende people who gained control of the ship, La Amistad in 1839. The opera, which premiered the same year as the famous “Amistad” film, also told the story of the international trial following the mutiny, which ultimately went to the United States Supreme Court.


Selections from “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X”


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