In Partnership with City Theatre, Recital is presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2019–2020 City Theatre season. Below is our review of One Night In Miami… written by Kemp Powers and directed by Reginald L. Douglas. This review is a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists NaTasha Thompson and Kelsey Robinson. Read their bios at the end of the review.
By David Bernabo
The bell rings and Cassius Clay emerges victorious. The 22-year old, 7-to-1 underdog known as the “The Louisville Lip” just defeated the World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, a figure so feared by other boxers that they refused to fight him. The fight was a big event, but the pre-fight fight was something else. The contenders met on the I’ve Got A Secret TV show, where Clay, braggadocious as ever, read a long, rhyming poem predicting his win — “Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight / That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.” Clay also rented a bus, painted it with the words, “Liston Must Go In Eight,” and drove it to Liston’s new home in Denver to yell taunts at him at three in the morning.
In the ring, Clay evaded Liston’s early charges and got in enough jabs to bruise and cut Liston’s face. Clay was blinded in the fifth round, both eyes burning, possibly due to the Monsel’s Solution, a hemostatic agent that was applied to Liston’s cut (or shoulders, depending who you ask). In the sixth round, Clay was back, landing multiple punch combinations. At the bell for round seven, Liston spit out his mouth guard. The fight was over.
It is on this night — February 25, 1964 — that the events in One Night in Miami… take place. In a modest room at the Hampton House hotel in Miami, four friends meet after the fight — Clay, singer/songwriter and record producer Sam Cooke, NFL running back and burgeoning actor Jim Brown, and American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X.
Playwright Kemp Powers debuted this fictional account in 2013, winning numerous awards. A European premiere arrived in 2016, and the play was recently optioned for a film adaptation due in 2020 to be directed by Regina King. City Theatre’s production, directed by Reginald L. Douglas, runs through December 1, 2019.
The design of One Night in Miami… is, on the surface, simple. There are no intermissions, no blackouts, no long pauses in the story. The gloriously rendered two-story exterior of the Hampton House reveals a cutaway room where the bulk of the play takes place. The play is a real test for the actors, each of whom spends a good bulk of the 90-minute duration on stage. There are a few wonderful play-within-a-play moments where the lighting changes, Sam Cooke breaks out in song — crooned with great care by Dwayne Washington — and the characters unite in a vision or flashback, but the for the most part, the four friends and two Nation of Islam security guards take part in a tightly constructed dialogue, alternately humorous and pointed.
The key to defining the relationship between the four friends is to establish an authentic camaraderie, something which Thomas Walter Booker (Clay), Quincy Chad (Brown), Dwayne Washington (Cooke), and Avery Glymph (Malcolm X) immediately do. An early scene shows Clay — embodied by Booker who brings infinite energy to the production and a comfortability with the era that belies his years — boisterously retelling the sequence of the fight, crediting, “a half pound of divine skill bestowed upon me from God up on high!” Cooke and Brown fall in line, acting out the events of Clay’s tale while offering verbal support. The scene is a high octane jolt that establishes Clay’s quick wit, ego, and youthful energy, Cooke and Brown’s ability to adapt and support, and Malcolm X’s reserved approval.
The play is full of swells. The four friends start in one place (jubilant celebration), end up in another (conflict in their visions for their lives and the lives of their community), and find their way back to each other. The bonds of friendship allow time and space to understand and accept contrasting perspectives.
Early in the play, these conflicts de-escalate with humor. Brown escapes conversations about religion and Islam by acknowledging his love of pork chops. A fog of tense silence stemming from Malcolm X’s real fear of assassination is broken by Clay revealing Brown’s secret Hollywood aspirations. But as the play progresses the conflicts cut a little deeper.
We see nuanced discussions on how to use power once one attains it. Malcolm X admonishes Sam Cooke for using his songcraft for frivolous sentiments, asking how he is an agent for change. Cooke counters that he has achieved economic freedom, that he owns the rights to his own work, that he is mentoring others in achieving this kind of freedom. Cooke mentions how he licensed Bobby Womack’s song to the Rolling Stones and while Womack’s sales nosedived under the success of the Stones’ version, the royalty checks that arrived a few months later made Womack a wealthy man. In essence, Cooke argues for changing the system from within, while X advocates for the confrontation and destruction of the system.
The argument resolves with both X and Cooke revealing their vulnerabilities. Malcolm talks of seeing Cooke perform for the first time. The power cut out, and Cooke got the whole crowd to replicate the sounds of the train in the song “Chain Gang.” X says, “if I give you a hard time, it’s only because I think so highly of you. You brothers are our bright, shining future.” On Cooke’s part, he opens up and gives his friends a preview of a new song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” powerfully rendered by Washington in his smoothest Sam Cooke tone. This is one of the places where the crowd teared up.
One Night in Miami… positions itself as a pivotal moment in the lives of its characters. The day after the fight, Cassius Clay would announce his membership in the Nation of Islam. With the official announcement came a name change to Cassius X, a choice to no longer bear the name of slave owners. A week later, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad would announce on the radio that Cassius Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali.
Malcolm X soon left the Nation of Islam and set up his own Muslim Mosque, Inc. Jim Brown was on the cusp of winning a Superbowl championship with the Browns in 1964 before embarking on a movie career in the 70s and 80s. Cooke released “A Change Is Gonna Come” a week after Clay’s fight. While it was a modest hit, the song signaled a change in purpose for Cooke and took on a greater meaning through its usage in the civil rights movement.
Within a year, two of the four friends would be dead — Cooke was shot and killed in December 1964, Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965.
In an age where social media allows for previously unheard of access, however curated, into the private lives of celebrities, One Night in Miami…, while fictional, is an intimate portrayal of historical figures that are both well-known and little understood. The play reveals some of the complexity of living as a black man in America in the mid-60s, and also shows that there is no monolithic “black man,” that experiences are individual, and that differing points of view can be celebrated. In the program, Powers, in an interview with director Reginald L. Douglas, says, “I wrote this play for 17-year old Kemp. I wanted him to see a play that is unapologetically Black and celebrates every Black man that there is.” Powers examines layers of visibility that surround a person from individual aspirations to one’s close circle of friends to one’s visions for their community to the outside world’s view of them. It is refreshing to see a play tackle friendship between black men with such honesty and vulnerability, with an aim of healing and understanding.
The final scene portrays Malcolm X openly contemplating leaving the Nation of Islam, bearing his genuine concerns to Sam Cooke. With this scene and many others, Powers invites the audience to dig below our surface knowledge of these towering figures and to access and imagine a different side of their existences.
One Night In Miami… runs from November 9 — December 1, 2019 at City Theatre. Find information about tickets here.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
NaTasha Thompson is a director and playwright and North Carolina native. She has been creating theatrical work since 2007 and holds a B.A in Drama from UNC-Greensboro. Her dramatic work seeks to unveil and question social norms, encouraging audiences to see the world with different lenses. From writing and producing her own stories to assisting innovative directors, her approach to live performance is informed by a variety of experiences. She has assisted and worked with organizations such as The North Carolina Black Repertory Company, Found Space Theatre, Playmakers Repertory Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Theatre For a New Audience, Bull City Black Theatre Festival and Alumni Theatre Company.
Kelsey Robinson is a hybrid Pittsburgh-NewYork actor-singer. She performs with local companies including Quantum Theatre, Bricolage, Afro Yaqui Music Collective and FolkLAB. She’s been honored to play some of her favorite museums and venues including The Studio Museum of Harlem, The Shed, MoMa, Mattress Factory, and The Andy Warhol Museum. Upcoming projects include a December World Premiere reading of TJ Parker’s The Lyon’s Den with Quantum, a March collaboration with Corningworks and Doctors Without Borders, and her own TalkingwithGhostsAboutFreedom, previewed by Kelly Strayhorn’s FreshWorks residency, which tours the Underground Railroad by bicycle in the Spring/Summer of 2020.