Sam Cook. Cassius Clay. Malcolm X. Jim Brown. Four celebrated black men who were each famous in their fields. But each was so much more than their celebrity. Put them all together in a hotel room in Miami in 1964, on the night that Cassius Clay wins the heavyweight boxing championship by defeating Sonny Liston. Their imagined conversations and revelations make for a powerful evening of theatre. In Kemp Powers’ effective, provocative, insightful and beautifully written One Night in Miami, we are witnesses to the thoughts and motivations driving each of these iconic figures. Center Stage has another hit with this production.

In 1964, Sam Cook and Jim Brown were both household names. Malcolm X was a polarizing figure in the mysterious Nation of Islam. Cassius Clay was well on his way as a boxer who would come to international renown as the heavyweight champion of the world. Malcolm X was a fan of Sam Cook long before they became friends. And Cassius Clay had reached out to Malcolm when he felt the need to add some spirituality to his life. The other connections are left unexplained. No matter. The connections are evident in the telling.

This plotless, slice-of-life exposé of what may have been said or felt on that night is as much a commentary on the times as it is on the characters. In one night, the audience learns much about who they are, well beyond the headlines and what we thought we knew of them.

One Night in Miami really starts in the theatre lobby, where a miniature ring is set up and a boxer spars with his manager. It’s an unexpected touch and a very good introduction to the period. The period is further set by a buxom singer in a gorgeous green cocktail dress doing songs of the day. In the theatre, the mood is even more vividly realized in Brenda Davis’ cleverly designed set. The stage is framed by a fringed curtain where film projections of the civil rights struggle are combined with clips from The Andy Griffin Show. And in the sliver of space underneath the stage we see, instead of an orchestra, crudely fashioned signs with ‘No Coloreds Allowed’ and ‘Whites Only’. The on-stage set depicts the hotel room in generic tones of peach and cream, with glimpses of the outside balcony. It seems a deliberate move that there is nothing on the stage to distract from focusing on the actors.

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction is as focused and controlled as ever. His never wavering devotion to the material is displayed with his usual professionalism. He is so good at this, and has set his own bar so high, that audiences have come to expect nothing less than unerring perfection. And he doesn’t disappoint.

The well-designed lighting by Colin Young and excellent period costuming from Clint Ramos pair perfectly, forming a thoughtful frame for the actors’ interactions. And what interactions there are.

The supporting actors, ostensibly body guards to Malcom X, do a fine job in small roles. A particular standout is Genesis Oliver as a young convert to Islam. Royce Johnson, in a thankless role, gives a focused performance that needs nothing more than that with his flawless delivery.

As Cassius Clay, Sullivan Jones bounds onto the stage like an overgrown Great Dane puppy. In an adrenaline-fueled opening monologue, he literally bounces all over the stage with an infectious enthusiasm that is exhilarating. In the hands of a less-accomplished actor it might easily have descended into caricature. But Jones has the skill and timing to pull it off, sweeping the audience into his maelstrom in much the same way that Clay did at the time. He is at times exhausting to watch but I never wanted to take my eyes off him. At 6’4”, with a body to die for and a smile to kill for, his presence fills the stage.

Esau Pritchett plays Jim Brown, arguably one of the best football players ever. He delivers his lines with a folksy ease, even when revealing long-held, painful memories. Pritchett’s delivery during those moments is matter-of-fact and honest, and every line seems true. When he’s giving advice to his friends, or mediating the constant conflicts between them, Pritchett hits all the right tones and we believe every word. And that’s great acting.

Tory Andrus’ interpretation of Malcolm X is a study in what can happen to a man whose convictions are so strong that they threaten to destroy him. Andrus is one tightly-wound package of focus. Playwright Powers reveals much more about the other three characters than he does about Malcolm, but what Powers and Andrus have put on the stage is most telling in what the character can’t allow himself to share with his friends. Andrus performs the role with a quiet determination and a stoic resolve that is sometimes heart-breaking.

Grasan Kingsberry is spot-on in his portrayal of soul singer Sam Cook. His character spends much of the story defending himself to Malcolm, and Kingsberry nails each exchange. In the passages where he tries to explain himself to the others, Kingsberry has what may well be the best line in the play. “Some folks just want a piece of the pie. I want the recipe.” Delivered with a simple, unaffected openness, he is never less than riveting. In the all too brief moments we get to hear him sing parts of Cook’s songbook, he is outstanding. A Julliard-trained dancer, he is a true triple threat.

Kemp Powers has written a play that is both great theatre and a testament to the times. Four black men: one on the verge of international acclaim as a great boxer, one hoping to cash in on his celebrity as an outstanding athlete by seguing into movies, one who was about to leave his religious community but with no intention of abandoning his faith, and one who thought he was doing everything he could for his people through his art– until his friends convinced him to do more. That makes for a compelling night of theatre.

One Night in Miami
Through Feb. 15
Center Stage
700 N. Calvert St.

Gay Life January 2015

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