By Olu Alemoru, Staff Writer
Imagine four towering iconoclastic figures coming together in one night to celebrate an event that literally and figuratively shook the world.
The event was Cassius Clay’s mighty underdog victory against Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, to become heavyweight champion of the world.
At the time, no one gave Clay an earthly chance of beating the hulking Liston, except possibly three of his good friends — star running back Jim Brown, soul legend Sam Cooke and the face of Black resistance Malcolm X — who threw a party for the boxing legend. The next morning Clay announced he was joining the Nation of Islam and became Muhammad Ali.
In “One Night in Miami” playwright Kemp Powers provides his own brilliant take on how that evening — in less than a year Malcolm and Cooke would be dead — might have played out.
Staged by the Rogue Machine Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., ONIM, premiered June 8 and runs through July 28.
The nearly two-month engagement will have shared roles for Brown and Cooke, but in the preview performance June 6 Brown was played by Kevin Daniels, Burl Moseley portrayed Cooke, Jason Delane was Malcolm and Matt Jones played Clay. The production was directed by Carl Cofield.
Still buzzing after Saturday’s sold out opening night, Powers, a noted journalist and storyteller, talked Monday about the inspiration for his play and how it came together.
Can you tell me the play’s genesis?
Basically, if you had caught me as a young adult in college and asked me who my favorite people were in the world I would have said Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. I considered myself a student of each of them, and in the course of reading a particular book — I think about Ali — I came across a passage that mentioned when he won the world title that no one thought he was going to win, he went back to Malcolm’s motel room with Sam and Jim.
This was shocking to me, like finding out your four favorite people were friends or like accidentally stumbling on the Justice League, but they are all Black. Ever since I found that out I was like man, this is something I want to write about in book form, but I had become a journalist by then and those books are usually written by academics. But that didn’t stop me from doing tons of research, picking up everything I could find about the four.
I guess for me the play kind of brings me back to when I was a young man and many of my ideas about what was right and good. It kind of deconstructs and re-engineers my own personality and puts that into words. So, this had been something I had interest in writing as play when I met with Rogue’s artistic director/producer John Perrin Flynn [Flynn had become a fan of Kemp’s short plays for the theater]. Initially, he had pitched me on an idea for a play about the freedom riders in the South, but I politely declined. Then I told him about my idea to dramatize that one night; he asked if that was real and I said yes.
He said he would like to read that and six weeks later I had a first draft. [Then] I submitted a second draft to the Classical Theater of Harlem’s stage reading series, ‘Future Classics.’ That was last spring and they loved it; the reading took place at the Malcolm and Betty Shabazz Center, which is basically The Audubon Ballroom. It took place right on the spot where Malcolm was killed. I met Carl [Colfield] who directed the reading and he said if you ever take this further I would love to be considered to direct it. I came back to L.A. and did more revisions, and then I had a private reading for members of Rogue. John approached me nearly in tears and said we have to produce this for our upcoming season and then we got the whole process started.
Did you like that first draft?
It seemed like it was good, but the second the actors started reading the lines out loud I was mortified because I realized I had written a history lesson, plain and simple. The characters didn’t seem natural and human. So rather than trying to educate, educate, educate, I had to go back and tackle it again and this time be much more in the moment. I went back to storytelling 101; there had to be a structure, clear, defined conflicts and character arcs.
Is there a moral you want the audience to take away?
I mean it’s hard to distill it down to a particular moral. I see it as a window into a moment; bare in mind it takes place in 1964. But I see the issues that each of them are struggling with as being very contemporary; modern athletes, modern musicians and celebs pointing fingers and accusing each other of things. That could just have easily been LeBron [James] and Kanye [West].
Again, it’s reflective of struggles I go through all the time. We are always judging, you know I don’t think this person is doing things right. I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes; people make decisions for a lot of different reasons, be it family or health. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it isn’t black or white; we all have to be flexible.
Was the casting process easy?
I would love to say with the wealth of actors here that casting this was easy, but the opposite was true. We had a colossal challenge to find the right guys for this. Even though we held several rounds of open auditions, almost all of them were referenced by other people I knew and trusted. Kevin Daniels is a friend of a friend and he did the very first reading of the play, right before he got the part of Magic Johnson in the Broadway play ‘Magic/Bird.’ He’s just been cast in a new USA Network comedy called ‘Sirens,’ but it’s kismet because that doesn’t debut until next year so he had the summer off.
Actually, Matt Jones, who played Clay, is the only one to come from an open audition. Jason Blaine [Malcolm], another friend of a friend, has worked at one of Chicago’s top theatres, The Goodman, and is a founding member of L.A.’s Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble. [Meanwhile] Burl Moseley is a company member of Rogue Machine.
Most would-be writers here gravitate to the big bucks of film and television. Why is theatre such a passion?
I grew up in New York and loved going to Broadway. But I was actually writing screenplays when I got here and didn’t like the experience at all. I had an agency and was getting hired to do screenwriting work, but the vast majority of screenplays that people are paid for never see the light of day. Lots of people make a good living and actually never see their movies produced.
That wasn’t satisfying for me; to be writing things that were going into some pit or just lost in limbo. It was compounded by the fact that being a writer for hire in a creative vein isn’t very appealing because you find yourself sitting across from someone who is telling you what’s right or wrong, believable or not believable. Often times that’s based on a very narrow worldview and you can’t really argue against it because you’re getting this check.
What’s the future for ‘One Night in Miami?’
[Ironically] I’ve had people honestly talk about it as a movie, but that’s not where my mind is. I want it to be well-received and then continue to have life on other stages. There are early discussions with the CTH [Classical Theatre of Harlem] to have it produced there. I’d love to have it staged somewhere like London; in fact my two top choices would be London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival [in Scotland].
(Foreground) Jason Delane as Malcolm X, (background l to r) Matt Jones (Cassius Clay) and Kevin Daniels (Jim Brown). Courtesy Rogue Machine Theatre