'One Night In Miami...': Theater Review

One Night in Miami Theater Still - H 2013
John Flynn
Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown join Cassius Clay to celebrate after his first heavyweight championship victory in February of 1964. Though they probably didn’t actually argue over race issues, the play’s speculative rhetoric accurately represents their views in this entertaining and engrossing fantasy.

A quartet of major African-American figures, including Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, argue over race in a hotel room after Cassius Clay wins his heavyweight championship in 1964.

Four men of enduring consequence and celebrity -- and inspirational if inevitably flawed alternative models of manhood -- blow off the luxurious Miami Beach celebration of Cassius Clay’s surprise victory over the imposing Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964 to hang out together instead in a Miami hotel in the ghetto. They are Nation of Islam firebrand Malcolm X (Jason Delane), singer-songwriter and music entrepreneur Sam Cooke (Ty Jones), football star and actor Jim Brown (Kevin Daniels) and boxing immortal Clay (Matt Jones). The following day Clay would announce, with Malcolm at his side, his allegiance with the Muslims.

In this world premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre in the Mid-Wilshire district by one of its resident playwrights, Kemp Powers, each man passionately argues his personal perspective on the objectives of racial advancement. The artifice requires them to become megaphones for ideas they have continued to represent with unceasing relevance. But Powers provides colorful dialogue that persuasively crackles with both the charisma and humanity of these iconic figures. The actors skillfully animate them into idiosyncratic and appreciably real individuals as well. Powers knows his history thoroughly, and he deftly avoids the traps of oversimplifying the convictions of complex men.

All of these guys are well-documented, so everyone was shrewd to seek out essences rather than impersonations, and the choices necessarily made are, for the most part, salubrious.

It requires substantial balls to sing as Cooke, especially live. Yet Jones’ sensitivity to the scale of the setting manages to suggest Cooke’s style by tying his musical performance to the acting requirements of his character in the scene, surpassing all unavoidable doubts. All the actors boast surprising nuances: the callowness of the so young and unsophisticated Clay; the hectoring and hustle of Malcolm masking legitimate insecurity and fear; the business acumen of Cooke reinforcing his artistic integrity; and the unmentioned fact that the intimidating violence of Brown obscures his intellectual heft as the one man in the room with a college education.

Above all, One Night in Miami… remains unstintingly interesting. It offers a fly-on-the-wall view of these mythic figures, each articulate in his own way, and despite conflicts, each making valid observations and sharing core values even as they differ on substantive action and attitude. Intriguingly, none invests much stock in the prospects for integration as a practical solution. Instead they emphasize individualism or collective discipline to achieve freedom on their own terms, viewing white society as adversarial rather than as an available collaborator.

Yes, with a fabricated premise, there remains an ineluctable sense of a cartoon, but it’s a well-drafted and intricate sketch, with an uncommon feeling for shading. It gives fine actors good material to play in a congenially theatrical mode.

Still, it should be noted that while the action understandably remains tethered to this one moment in time, and we already know that Cooke and Malcolm would be dead within the year, there is no discernible intimation that in his new identity as "Cassius X" (he would not yet be named Muhammad Ali), the former Cassius Clay would disown Malcolm and pledge allegiance to Elijah Muhammad so soon thereafter, an act he would come to rue in time.

Venue: Rogue Machine Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Ty Jones, Burl Moseley, Jason Delane, Matt Jones, Kevin Daniels, Giovanni Adams, Jah Shams, Jason E. Kelley
Director: Carl Cofield
Playwright: Kemp Powers
Set designer: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Costume designer: Naila Aladdin Sanders
Sound designer: Christopher Moscatiello
Presented by John Perrin Flynn, Roxanne Hart