Muhammad Ali: One Night in Miami

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Photo above: Tory Andrus, Sullivan Jones, Esau Pritchett and Grasan Kingsberry in One Night in Miami.
(Richard Anderson)

On a warm winter night in February 1964, Cassius Clay – a brash young boxer from Lexington, Kentucky – soundly defeated Sonny Liston, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Rather than celebrate in style, Clay repaired to his Florida hotel room to relax with three friends: singer Sam Cooke; NFL star Jim Brown; and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X. Imagining what transpired between the four men that night is the subject of playwright Kemp Powers’ gripping drama, One Night in Miami – the current offering at Centerstage.

Keenly directed by Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, One Night in Miami premiered in 2013 at the Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles. The LA production garnered plaudits and with good reason – this is a very compelling play.

Powers’ tack in composing the fable relied primarily on knitting together an array of facts about the four famous men. Powers could not interview Sam Cooke or Malcolm X (both long dead), nor did he speak with either Muhammad Ali (whose health is in decline) or Jim Brown (at 78 a special advisor to the Cleveland Browns football team). But in laying out the story, Kemp paints a picture of a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, while presenting four divergent views of the Civil Rights movement.

Admittedly, constructing a sympathetic story around Cooke, Clay, Brown and Malcolm X (and by extension the Nation of Islam) is no easy feat, as all four men either were – or would become – lightening rods for controversy. Malcolm X was viewed by most Americans as the antithesis of peaceful activist Dr. Martin Luther King. In the end, X would die in a hail of bullets fired by three NOI assassins. Cooke would also die by gunshot, after allegedly attacking the clerk at a cheap motel where he had taken a known prostitute. Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and his religious convictions cost him his boxing title and netted Ali a conviction for draft evasion. And Brown, once a gridiron hero, has faced arrest several times for assaulting women. Still, each shared the stage at a time when the African-American community was desperately seeking a standard bearer, and in their own right, all remain beloved by that group today.

Esau Pritchett, Sullivan Jones and Tory Andrus. (Richard Anderson)
Esau Pritchett, Sullivan Jones and Tory Andrus. (courtesy photo)

The story opens (after a brief bit of dialogue between two Nation of Islam bodyguards) with Sam Cooke working out the chords to Put Me Down Easy – a song intended for his brother L.C.’s debut album which was almost lost with Sam’s untimely death. Sam is soon joined by Brown, Clay and Malcolm X, and the group begins to rehash the fight.

Dancing around the stage (as only he could do) Clay exclaims, “I’ve been hitting him with punches he’s never seen before — even before I invented them!” Clay then pauses long enough to ask the rhetorical question, “Why am I so pretty?”

The jubilation of the moment quickly shifts, however, when X reminds Clay it is time to stop for prayer. Both Cooke and Brown are dubious about Clay’s apparent conversion to the Nation of Islam. Cooke says, “We can’t just go out proclaiming that the white man is the devil.”

Brown’s reluctance to embrace the cause is couched in more pragmatic terms. He is looking at retirement from football and a possible Hollywood career. And he doesn’t want to give up his grandma’s pork chops or (women).

Brown also chafes at Malcolm X’s erudite explanation of the black man’s plight, first saying, “We’re not weapons — we are men,” then jibing, “You’re just full of superlatives.” But X retorts, “One can never be too busy to get some added perspective.”

Broadway veteran Grasan Kingsberry portrays Sam Cooke. (Courtesy photo)
Broadway veteran Grasan Kingsberry portrays Sam Cooke. (Richard Anderson)

Cooke then adds his own perspective by noting that black artists are making a fortune every time the Rolling Stones cover one of their songs. “Those white boys are out there on tour, and they don’t even know they are working for us.”

But in 1964 a change is coming: not only in the music but in the world the four men know.

How much of their personal transformation can be traced to that night in Miami?

Portraying iconic individuals is never an easy task. Luckily, the acting in One Night in Miami could not be better.

Sullivan Jones – who played Clay/Ali in the LA production – reprises his role with energy and a facile flair which would have surely delighted the late Howard Cosell.

Esau Pritchett is particularly powerful as football legend Jim Brown. One could easily see him racing through the vaunted line of the Chicago Bears. And Tory Andrus – the somewhat calming presence in the hotel room – brings an undeniable weight to the part of Malcolm X.

As Sam Cooke, Broadway veteran Grasan Kingsberry provides the one show-stopping moment of the night when he works his way through the audience in a style befitting the late pop singer. Kingsberry may not have Cooke’s range, but the selections are timeless, and he does an admirable job putting each soulful number across.

Royce Johnson and Genesis Oliver as two NOI bodyguards.  (courtesy photo)
Royce Johnson and Genesis Oliver as two NOI bodyguards. (Richard Anderson)

In the small, but no less significant roles of the two NOI bodyguards, Royce Johnson (Kareem) and Genesis Oliver (Jamaal) wonderfully complete the picture with two very different takes on life within the Black Power movement.

On the artistic side, kudos to casting director Stephanie Klapper for bringing together this terrific cast.

Brenda Davis’ stage evokes every motel ad you’ll recall from the 1960’s and is perfectly lit by lighting designer Colin Young. Equally at home are costume designer Clint Ramos’ threads.

Alex Koch designed the projections that (spoiler) end the play with a montage which includes some controversial images. Perhaps that is fitting, since recent events have once again put America on a racial precipice. To understand where we are today, we need only look back a generation. That may be the real moral from One Night in Miami.

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Centerstage’s production of One Night in Miami runs now – February 8. Running time for the play is a crisp ninety minutes with no intermission. Centerstage is located at 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, Md. More information may be found by calling the box office at 410-332-0033 or by visiting Centerstage online. Try to arrive early to catch the preshow lobby experience, where actors will be performing as if they were at the 1964 Miami Convention Center. You may even feel as if you are there, watching the fight.