Playwright Kemp Powers takes a haphazard historical happening, a meeting between civil-rights leader Malcolm X, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke and newly-crowned heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, and imagines what might have transpired in the East Coast premiere of One Night in Miami… at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE as the fourth main stage production of its 2014/15 season.
Inspired by the real-life get together of Clay (Sullivan Jones), Cooke (Grasan Kingsberry), Brown (Esau Pritchett) and Malcolm X (Tory Andrus) on Feb. 25, 1964, CENTERSTAGE Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah creatively captures Powers’ multiple woven strains of plot and character with a seasoned skillfulness and deft dexterity, highlighting the specifics of their sharply distinctive personalities into an energetically-engrossing scenario.
“I think part of my job is to bring the best new plays that I can to the theater,” Kwei-Armah said. “This play focuses on an iconic moment – not just in sporting history, but in black history. Cassius Clay coming out and moving to Muhammad Ali within 24 hours of this. Malcom X dying within the year. It’s a huge moment for African American history, and for American history.”
On February 25, 1964, despite the seemingly unsurmountable odds, 22-year-old Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight boxing title, defying the conventional wisdom that Sonny Liston would easily prevail in the ring. Instead of hitting the town, Clay chooses a low-keyed celebration in a modest Miami hotel room with three high-profile friends— Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, singer-producer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. This fictional account of a real night cleverly conceives what might have happened in that unassuming hotel room. That Clay would announce his allegiance to the Nation of Islam the very next day — he would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali — makes the night before all the more intriguing. As the Civil Rights movement stirs outside, and the melody of “A Change is Gonna Come” permeate the air, four iconic men, embarking in a process of self-reinvention, emerge from that one night ready to define a new world.
Amid colorful dialogue and easy banter among four old pals whose partying is as profane as it is impromptu, central debate about African American assimilation versus revolution arises between Cooke (Grasan Kingsberry) and Malcolm X (Tory Andrus), the latter of whom decries the former’s selling out to white audiences instead of giving his voice to the movement. Cooke, however, has an alternate, equally resounding take on unwittingly subverting the system. Malcolm X’s hard-lined adamancy and incessant insistence that prominent black achievers take an unequivocal civil rights stand chafes Cooke, whose craftier business model has the likes of the Rolling Stones covering R&B hits as the functional equivalent of employees.
Their face-offs gradually accelerate, escalating against the sunshiny self-involvement of Clay (Sullivan Jones), who allows Malcolm X to attribute his victory to divine intervention, hence his impending conversion to Islam.
Brown (Esau Pritchett), who incidentally is the only one in the room that is college-educated, announces he knows the score where race in America is concerned, avowing a preference for upfront racist rednecks over condescending liberals as he forges a post-NFL movie career. Pritchett adds a layer of levity to the increasingly intense script, reeling the audience with his droll comicality, focusing attention back to his basic needs, girls, pork chops and booze.
Malcolm X’s bodyguards: exuberant Brother Jamaal (Genesis Oliver) and imposing Brother Kareem (Royce Johnson), who stand prominently on both ends of the stage for most of the production, also add amusing dimension and breadth to the ongoing discourse.
Binding from the get-go, the vibrant humor, ironic reversals and the larger societal implications are compelling and sustaining, right through to the bittersweet fade-out. Director Kwame Kwei-Armah keeps things tautly entertaining and well-paced on designer Brenda Davis’ splendid set, and each actor, who wholly embodies, rather than merely mimic, the essence of their real-life counterparts, are truly spellbinding.
Sullivan Jones captures the all-consuming confidence and eagerness we associate with “The Greatest,” animatedly moving throughout the stage to reenact his triumph, intermittingly wailing, “Why am I so pretty?” Tory Andrus is convincing as Malcolm, subtly masking insecurity and fear, while righteously insisting that prominent black achievers take an unequivocal civil rights stand. Grasan Kingsberry’s Sam Cooke, steals the show, right from the start, with his incredible voice and presence, as well as his business acumen, reinforcing his artistic integrity. His musical performance, accentuated with Colin Young and Marika Kent’s lighting, mid-way through the show was electrifying, leaving a few lucky audience members swooning in serenity.
Timely-themed and transformational, CENTERSTAGE’S One Night in Miami… offers an engaging, thought-provoking, fly-on-the-wall view of four fascinating figures, each articulate in his own unique way, and despite conflicts, each imparting effective observations and sharing core personal values and perspectives even as they differ on appropriate action and attitude.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.