‘One Night in Miami’: 1960s black history as it might have been

New Center Stage production is a brilliantly re-imagined portrait of four iconic 1960s historical figures—just in time to celebrate Black History Month.

Setting for new Center Stage production of
Setting for new Center Stage production of "One Night in Miami." (Credit: Richard Anderson)

BALTIMORE, January 27, 2015 – As a child of the 1960s, I would salivate at the prospect of hanging out with a crew that included the world heavyweight boxing champ, the greatest running back in the NFL, the smoothest soul singer and the most militant voice in the Movement. And given the opportunity for an interview, Cassius Clay (known better today as Muhammed Ali) would have probably been my first choice.

But as a fly on the wall, experiencing a dynamic exchange between the four, I would have never guessed that vocalist Sam Cooke’s soulful story line would have captured the hour. But in “One Night in Miami,” Kemp Powers’ dramatic re-imaging of an encounter of these four giant figures of the ‘60s—now playing at Baltimore’s Center Stage—it is Sam Cooke’s tragic forewarning of the future that lingers long after this powerful one act play concludes.

Cast of "Miami."
Miami 2: L-R: Tory Andrus, Sullivan Jones, Esau Pritchett, Grasan Kingsberry. (Credit: Richard Anderson)

It’s the night of February 25, 1964. A brash, young 22-year-old Cassius Clay has just shocked the sporting world by taking the world heavyweight championship from formidable puncher Sonny Liston. Instead of celebrating at the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach where blacks were not welcomed, Clay chooses to make a statement, celebrating instead in the Hampton House hotel in North Miami where he had trained with three close friends—activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and football star Jim Brown.

Playwright Kemp Powers’ storyline imagines what might have happened in that tiny hotel room. As the Civil Rights Movement stirs outside and the melody of “A Change is Gonna Come” hangs in the air, these four men will emerge from that one night ready to redefine the world.

Sparing no detail, right down to transforming the Center Stage lobby into a gaudily accurate cloning of the entrance to the Miami Convention Center—complete with palm trees, period pictures and a miniature ring with a tout board trumpeting Clay’s 7-to-1 underdog odds—artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah puts his signature style on the company’s east coast premiere of this knockout show.

“I think part of my job is to bring the best new plays that I can to the theater,” Kwei-Armah says. “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. Malcolm X dying within the year. It’s a huge moment for African American history, and for American history.”

The director’s background use of powerful, historic, sepia-toned celebrity photos from the period set the mood while contrasting ironically with the modern day super graphic backdrop of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eugene Garner. The entire graphic assemblage brings the historic context full circle with a powerful and modern exclamation point to close the house down.

What makes this intriguing musical play a must-see Center Stage event on the eve of Black History Month is its exceptionally strong ensemble cast, featuring Tory Andrus as Malcolm X; Sullivan Jones as Cassius Clay; Grasan Kingsberry as Sam Cooke; and Esau Pritchett as Jim Brown.

Sam Cooke (Grasan Kingsberry) on his guitar.
Sam Cooke (Grasan Kingsberry) on his guitar. (Credit: Richard Anderson)

Gransan Kingsberry, whose vocal credentials include the recent Broadway run of “Motown” and the national tours of “The Color Purple” and “Dreamgirls,” comes through loud and clear in this production in his mesmerizing solos of classics like “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” and his prophetic rendering of “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Sullivan Jones as the young and now legendary heavyweight champ channels an uncannily effective Cassius Clay, right down to the champ’s classic good looks and “float like a butterfly” moves, “stinging like a bee” as he transforms the hotel room into an imaginary ring, reliving his stunning victory over Liston. All the while, he dances circles around his imaginary opponent and delivers a spot-on, blow-by-blow running commentary on his shockingly swift win over his presumably more powerful opponent.

It’s at this key moment that Jones, mind-melding with the spontaneous and narcissistic style of the champion, finds the one mirror in the hotel room. Staring into it, he lets loose, defining his character with a now-classic rhetorical question: “Oh my God! Why am I so pretty?”

But for pure athletic presence, Esau Pritchett as the Cleveland Browns’ all-time great running back Jim Brown delivers a muscular and keeping-it-real persona, quickly becoming the dominant figure on stage. As a mature gridiron warrior at the top of his game in this drama’s time-frame, Pritchett’s Brown shares his secret desire to walk away from football and reinvent himself as a Hollywood movie star—something he actually did, quitting the Browns and the NFL in 1966 at the age of 29.

Having gotten a heady taste of Hollywood already, Brown at this point is far from bashful about his desire for close encounters with Tinseltown’s white starlets and the movie star fast life. He is eager to leave his bruising life as a modern-day football gladiator and exchange it for a new career as, arguably, Hollywood’s first black action hero.

Tory Andrus’ take on Malcolm X is a close portrayal of the controversial real-life civil rights crusader. At 39 the elder statesman of the group, Andrus’ Malcolm X comes across as the one brooding and disapproving figure in the room. And with good reason. The Nation of Islam was about to muzzle their outspoken firebrand, courtesy of two members of the Fruit of Islam security detail—Kareem and Jamal—effectively played in this production by Royce Johnson and Genesis Oliver who carefully watch his every move.

The play’s imaginary encounter with these characters occurs on the eve of one of Malcolm’s greatest achievements: convincing Cassius Clay to declare his allegiance to the Nation of Islam, become a Black Muslim and change his name forever to Muhammad Ali.

None of this happens, however, until Sam Cooke’s creative buttons (via Kingsberry’s powerful portrayal) push him over the edge. He challenges himself to dig deep and make a musical statement about the movement that was swirling around him, just as Bob Dylan had done earlier with “Blowin’ In The Wind.” That song became the inspiration for Cooke’s own classic, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Tragically, both Cooke and Malcolm X would soon meet their untimely deaths – Cooke in a seedy Los Angeles hotel the following December, ironically on the eve of the release of “A Change is Gonna Come;” and Malcolm X almost exactly a year later in New York at the hands of a black assassin.

What makes Center Stage unique among the region’s best theater venues is its inventive use of its multifaceted space to totally immerse theater goers in the theme and texture of the play, which, in this case, will transports you to Miami’s Hampton House Hotel on the wrong side of the tracks for a soul-stirring night on the town.

So when you order your tickets to “One Night in Miami,” don’t expect just a passive, sit-down reserved seat for your hard-earned bucks. Look forward instead to a Four Star, Total Fight Night theater experience.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Performances of “One Night in Miami” run through February 8, 2015 at Baltimore’s Center Stage.

Approximate running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission.

For tickets, information and directions: Visit centerstage.org or call them at 410-332-0033.

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