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Before He Became Muhammad Ali: One Night In Miami


Ty Jones (as Sam Cooke), Jason Delane (as Malcolm X), Matt Jones (as Cassius Clay), and Kevin Daniels (as Jim Brown). Photo: John Flynn

First of all, along with The Scottsboro Boys, Rogue Machine’s world premiere of One Night in Miami… is simply among the best plays I’ve seen in years. Ironically, both productions are based on real events involving world historical African Americans. Indeed, regarding the current wave of Black-themed plays, a member of the Miami crew quipped at an opening night after party, “it’s not even February!” (This wisecrack, of course, refers to Black History Month, when African American works are often highlighted -- or ghettoized, depending on your P.O.V.)

One Night in Miami… has a deliciously enticing “what if?” notion based on limited documentation regarding what really happened behind closed doors after Cassius Clay (the appropriately irrepressible Matt Jones) whooped Sonny Liston in the Sunshine State. After the bout, the new world champ spent time at the Hampton House Motel and Villas with three other fellas you just might have heard of: Singer Sam Cooke (the multi-gifted Ty Jones), pro-footballer Jim Brown (Kevin Daniels) and rabble-rouser Malcolm X (Jason Delane). Except for the fact that they ate vanilla ice cream, little is known about what actually occurred behind closed doors on February 25, 1964 -- so playwright Kemp Powers’ powers of imagination plausibly fills in the spine-tingling blanks.

Now that Cassius has won the heavyweight championship, the exuberant 22-year-old is poised to announce to the world -- with Malcolm by his side -- that he is joining the Nation of Islam, led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Also known as the “Black Muslims,” in the early ’60s NOI had a reputation for militancy, in contrast to the nonviolent civil rights movement steered by Dr. Martin Luther King. Instead of turning the other cheek like meek Christians, the Black Muslims would be more likely to kick both your cheeks, if you got cheeky with Black folk.

one night in miami

But as Cassius embarks on his audacious odyssey of standing up to the “man” (the white man, to be precise), there’s a fly in the ointment. Malcolm is currently on the outs with the Nation, supposedly because of “intemperate” remarks he made following the JFK assassination about “the chickens coming home to roost.” Behind the scenes, Elijah and the NOI leadership are threatened by the meteoric rise of Malcolm, who -- with his keen intellect and sheer bravado that is the political equivalent of Cassius in the ring and Jim on the gridiron -- has galvanized a new generation of Blacks who just ain’t gonna take it no more, and “by any means necessary.” Malcolm’s eloquence, too, is the rhetorical equal to Sam’s singing, his stinging, sonorous speeches the scourge of white supremacists everywhere. From appearing on Mike Wallace’s 1959 TV documentary entitled The Hate That Hate Produced to debating whitey at the U.K.’s Oxford Union (which actually took place after this play’s events), the strident Malcolm became the face of Black resistance -- not Elijah.

One night in miami

Ty Jones and Matt Jones. Photo: John Flynn

Aye, that’s the rub and why Malcolm had to be rubbed out. The Fruit of Islam dispatched to “protect” the Honorable Minister at the Hampton House are really there to spy on Malcolm and keep him in line. Jason E. Kelley is creepily menacing as security guard Brother Kareem, and viewers may have to physically restrain themselves from running onstage and snapping his bowtie, slapstick style.

Having won the title one might think that this is Clay’s night -- but Delane’s subtle Malcolm steals the show. With his forebodings of doom, Delane is aptly edgy as a firebrand who knows his days are numbered. Malcolm may have indeed been brilliant, but in terms of formal education in the bourgeois sense, the ex-jailbird was untutored. Delane expertly depicts Malcolm as a man who is acting out a role, comporting himself like one would imagine a serious scholar and intellectual would behave. But beneath the persona Malcolm has a seething soul: It’s splitsville, baby, and the Black Messiah is in the process of transcending the narrow NOI ideology and embracing a Pan-African, pro-Third World, secular nationalism.

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one night in miami

Playwright Kemp Powers

For a debut bard Powers excels at expressing philosophical notions through a storytelling medium, and Miami is always nothing less than entertaining. Each character in this one acter has his moment -- Ty Jones shines in his showstopping, scene stealing rendition of Sam Cooke’s lyrical love song, “You Send Me.” And, as Malcolm harangues Sam to use his artistry for higher purposes -- to rally the masses to fight for their rights -- the singer/ composer forges his civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Kevin Daniels’ Jim Brown, who does on the football field what Cassius does on the canvas, always holds his own and reveals his character to not only be a star athlete but an educated man who refuses to eat Jim Crow, and views a form of “Black capitalism” as a means towards empowerment. And Jones’ Cassius-cum-Ali is at all times infectiously fetching and exhilarating -- a champ who knows it, and is anything but a chump.

The high octane quartet, along with their NOI “minders” who don’t mind their own business, are deftly directed by New Yorker Carl Cofield. The set by scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz skillfully evokes the sole Miami motel that welcomed African Americans during the ignominious days of American apartheid -- which all four of our heroes are, in their own ways, dead set against and aim to abolish.

Alas, the struggle -- and celebrity -- would consume them. Of course, within about a year after the night this fantastic four met, “the chickens would come home to roost” for both poor Sam and Malcolm. Ali would go on to fight his greatest bout outside of the ring against the draft and the war in Vietnam, unforgettably asserting: “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me niggger.” (Malcolm taught his protégé well!) But health problems, perhaps brought on by his boxing, would bedevil Ali, just as Brown’s alleged domestic run-ins would dim his luster.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

But oh, what a night that must have been at the Hampton House, when four Black princes at the apex of their powers bestrode the world like mighty colossuses! This gripping, highly enjoyable, elating drama is theatre at its best, and I haven’t had this much fun without women since I kayaked down the Molokai Express in 1989. RM’s never dull drama has turned this critic into a fan. I look forward to going “Rogue” at the Machine’s Iraq War drama Dying City soon.

Don’t you dare miss One Night in Miami… which plays at 8:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3:00 p.m. on Sundays through July 28 (dark July 6) at Rogue Machine, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A., CA 90019. For info: (855)585-5185; .

Ed Rampell

Wednesday, 12 June 2013