It’s exhilarating when history not only comes to life, but catches fire. That’s what happens in Kemp Powers’ powerful fact-fiction mash-up, One Night in Miami, an East Coast premiere brought dazzlingly to the stage with cinemascope style by Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and a knockout cast.
The excitement begins before you even take your seat. As with the previous production of Amadeus, the theater plunges you in the milieu of the play. Here, you are transported to the Miami Convention Center in 1964, the venue where the famous heavyweight championship took place between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, and there is a boxing ring in the lobby where pugilists spar and get weighed and Etta James sings before the main event. You can also shadow box with Clay and the inner lobby is decorated like the Hampton House Hotel.
The Hampton House welcomed a black clientele, and it is where Clay (Sullivan Jones) stayed before and after the fight. Although Clay could appear at the Convention Center and the posh Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach for a victory party, he was forbidden to stay there.
Brenda Davis’s spot-on set captures a 60s-era generic motel suite, but outside the cement brick walls of the room she captures a less-solid world for Clay and his friends—soul singer Sam Cooke (Grasan Kingsberry), football star Jim Brown (Esau Pritchett) and activist Malcolm X (Tory Andrus). The motel room is surrounded on three sides by stirring vintage video footage of the era, transposing images of the civil rights movement with stock photography of Miami tourist spots. Below the set, you can see signs for the restaurant, proclaiming “We Serve Colored. Take Out Only.”
We crash-land into the world of the play before anyone even utters a word. Once the four men reunite to celebrate Clay’s historic feat, One Night takes off like a rocket, immersing you in the dynamics between the long-time buddies and making everything seem real and immediate, instead of a meditative and stately “what if.”
We do know for a fact that the foursome were friends and that the day after this “night,” Clay became a Muslim and took the name of Muhammad Ali. Playwright Kemp Powers uses this real-life situation as a launching pad for a dynamic and riveting riff on race and skin color (both within and beyond black culture), loyalty, women, religion, music and power.
Right from the get-go we see the roles they play in the friendship. Malcolm X is the instigator, the one who can’t help but stir things up and play devil’s advocate. He provokes Sam about his music pandering to white audiences—why can’t he write a civil right anthem, like Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he goads—and Jim about selling out in the white man’s world of pro football and Hollywood.
Malcolm’s also a major influence on Clay and the rules-setting for the gathering—no women, no booze (except what they sneak out of Sam’s flash) and only vanilla ice cream to eat. Jim is the easy-going athlete and trailblazer, while Sam is the charismatic people-pleaser. And Clay—he’s the champ, on top of the world and a future without limits.
The men settle into their expected roles but, in the course of the evening, you look deep into their hearts and minds. Amid the male-bonding and playful razzing, we find out that Jim and Sam prefer to work inside the system, infiltrating the Caucasian-dominated world of entertainment with their talent and opening the door for other black people. Jim doesn’t want to be a symbol, like Sydney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, he wants to be the kind of guy he likes to see in the movies and on TV—an action hero.
Sam wants to bring soul and stirrings of revolution into the pop charts. We are witness to Clay’s doubts about his decision and Malcolm’s fears about the path his outspokenness has taken him. At the same time, we also feel the weight of history, knowing that the violent deaths of Cooke and Malcolm X will happen later that year.
Closes Feb 15, 2015
700 North Calvert Street
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $19 – $64
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
or call 410-332-0033
Pritchett conveys the brawn and physicality of Jim Brown, but also trumps the notion of the dumb footballer, showing a man of perceptiveness and ambition. Kingberry’s Cooke is so magnetic he seems to be standing in the spotlight whether strumming a guitar in the corner or eating a bowl of ice cream. Restless and as driven in his own aspirations as Malcolm, his Cooke is a catalyst for change as well as the possessor of a God-given voice.
As Malcolm, Andrus captures his precise cadences and dignified stature, but also gives us glimpses of a man who is almost impish in his desire to provoke and speechify. Jones makes Clay’s buoyant confidence and sheer beauty so likeable, but also delivers the emotional goods when needed.
In 90 minutes, we are taken on a passionate, historic thrill ride, where we feel privileged to eavesdrop into the lives of four great men and to watch a play so much like Clay/Ali—so light on its feet and with dexterous wordplay.
One Night in Miami by Kemp Powers . Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah . Featuring Tory Andrus, Royce Johnson, Sullivan Jones, Grasan Kingsberry, Genesis Oliver and Esau Pritchett . Scenic design: Brenda Davis, Costume design: Clint Ramos . Lighting design: Colin Young . Stage Manager: Captain Kate Murphy . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.