It’s a matter of historical record that Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown spent the night of Feb. 25, 1964, at Miami’s Hampton House Hotel. It was a momentous night, for Clay had just defeated Sonny Liston earlier in the evening to become heavyweight champion of the world. The next day he would announce that he was converting to the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Within a year of that night, both Cooke and Malcolm X would be shot to death.
What were those four men saying that night? No recordings or notes have ever surfaced, so Kemp Powers, a magazine journalist turned award-winning playwright, has imagined the conversation for us. “One Night in Miami . . . ,”
the resulting play now at Center Stage, is a smart, plausible speculation on what might have happened. It tickles our curiosity about how famous men behave offstage and illuminates the tensions at work in 1960s America. If it fails to provide the shattering catharsis of “Selma,” that’s only because its ambitions are more limited.
This is not the first time that Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah has tackled a docu-drama about recent American history. Two Januarys ago, he also directed Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” a similar show about an imagined encounter between Martin Luther King Jr. and a fictional motel maid in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel the night before King was assassinated. That script too was smart and plausible before it veered off into a silly, supernatural dead end. Powers makes no such missteps, and his play is satisfying from start to finish.
Kwei-Armah makes an astute decision to have music form the skeleton that the rest of “One Night in Miami” hangs on. The 33-year-old Cooke, played by Grasan Kingsberry in a caramel-colored leather jacket, loafers, and a two-tone sports shirt, is able to turn the ideas being tossed around the motel suite into emotionally charged melody. It’s one thing to talk about the tension between lust and religion; it’s quite another to sing about it in ‘Somebody Have Mercy,’ a gospel message transformed into a song of romantic need It’s one thing to argue about messages in art; it’s something else to hear Cooke sing ‘Having a Party’ early in the show and then later sing ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’
Kingsberry doesn’t possess a once-in-a-generation voice as Cooke did, but he’s a good singer and a better actor who can draw an audience into the world of the song. When he demonstrates the difference between singing ‘You Send Me’ with pretty refinement at the upscale Copacabana Club and with hip-grinding funk at the downhome Harlem Square Club, Kingsberry brings not only Cooke to life but also the class divisions in mid-’60s America.
Sullivan Jones, a lanky string bean of an actor in a white shirt and blue suit, reminds us that the 22-year-old Clay was still a kid when he became champion. In contrast to his older friends in the motel suite, he seems an overgrown teenager—loud-mouthed, self-infatuated, and impetuous. Jones is a strong physical actor, and his miming of the bout with Liston is a marvel of stutter steps and windmill punches. Clay has decided that the Nation of Islam can help him grow up, but Jones makes it clear he’s having second thoughts.
The other famous athlete in the room, 28-year-old NFL running back Jim Brown, confesses to Clay that he’s tired of getting banged up on the football field. He’s thinking of taking early retirement and becoming an action-picture actor. Played by Esau Pritchett, a tall, muscled actor in a turquoise turtleneck, Brown is the least conflicted figure on stage. He knows what he wants: a big paycheck, his grandma’s pork chops, and white women.
The 39-year-old Malcolm X exudes a similar self-assurance, though he differs from Brown on the pork-chop and white-women questions. As the evening wears on, however, Malcolm admits to growing doubts about the Nation of Islam and its absolutist credo. The two bodyguards supposedly assigned to protect him, the older, sterner Kareem (Royce Johnson) and younger, giddier Jamaal (Genesis Oliver), come to resemble prison guards to keep him from talking to outsiders. Actor Troy Andrus, wearing the iconic red afro, black suit, and bookkeeper glasses, reveals a Malcolm X on the brink of breaking with the NOI, Louis Farrakhan, and Clay himself.
He also reveals a Malcolm X who’s a big Sam Cooke fan. Powers’ play may come to a sudden end just when you think an intermission is due. As a result of this brevity, it may offer more tantalizing hints of changes to come than actual transformations on stage. It may sketch more tensions within 1964 America than it can ever hope to resolve. And it may talk a lot about women without ever giving them a chance to speak. But whenever this guys’ night out becomes too much of a talk fest or a historical checklist, Kwei-Armah shifts to the music.
And when it does, Kingsberry and his director know how to stage a musical number. When Cooke closes his eyes, lifts his head to the acoustic-tile ceiling and takes his time with each word of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ transformation seems closer at hand than at any other time in the play. “There’ve been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long,” he sings with painful weariness, but then adds with resilient strength, “but now I think I’m able to carry on.”