By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Playwright Kemp Powers sure set out to create a daunting challenge for himself with his 2013 play One Night in Miami, now making its local premiere at City Theatre.
It’s a fictionalized (but not implausible) get together with four of America’s biggest black celebrities at the time; Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X. The meet-up takes place in a Miami motel on the night of February 25, 1964 right after the 22-year-old Clay won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship title from Sonny Liston … and right before Clay announced he was joining the Nation of Islam.
The men, who in real life were all friends, are there to celebrate the fight; the play runs 90 intermission-less minutes and during that time sides are drawn, then redrawn and drawn again. There are outlandish jokes, cutting confrontations, painful revelations and hesitant reconciliations. Exactly the sort of thing you’d assume you’d find in a play of historical fiction.
And that’s really Powers’ biggest challenge; the expectations of the audience, expectations he must both meet and subvert. The script needs to stay within the boundaries of possibility without congealing into tedium. But expectations don’t run any higher than when you populate your play with such well-know figures; each of us already has ideas of how Cooke should act, or what Clay must sound like or how fiery Malcolm X should be. Powers needs to juggle all of that, and a whole lot more, while never relinquishing control.
One Night in Miami continues through December 1. City Theatre, South Side. 412-431-CITY. www.citytheatrecompany.org
It’s my very great pleasure to tell you that he never does. This is a brisk, purposeful 90 minutes of tight playwriting; Powers is a masterful entertainer who knows precisely what is called for and provides the goods with a deft, sure hand.
Part of the reason for the evening’s seemingly effortless, but relentless, drive is Powers’ ability to write dialogue sounding as though it were merely plucked out of the air. When these four men all riff together you’ll feel like you’re an invisible eavesdropper at a reunion of lifelong friends.
Powers also makes sure to move beyond the celebrity and keep the subtext bubbling just below the surface. These are four African American men who are all keenly aware that at any moment the little bit of self-protection they’ve managed to grab from a racist white America could be take away in an instant. Two of the men, Clay and Malcolm, were, in fact, being surveilled by the FBI during the time of the play’s event. And Malcolm and Cooke would be dead within a year of Clay’s victory. One Night in Miami’s most fascinating point is showing us how strong, farsighted black men must exhaust some of that strength just to manage the rage engendered by the daily, if not hourly, injustice threatening to destroy them.
At City Theater, Tony Ferrieri has designed a set that is literally breathtaking. If slightly run-down motels in Miami in 1964 didn’t look like this, they should have. And Dominique Fawn Hall has, with just a few simple costumes, manage to sum up an entire era.
Reginald L. Douglas directs with a sly, hidden intelligence and talent knowing exactly how to shape the work without having it looked shaped at all; this is an event that just seems to be taking place for the first time right in front of you.
Top-flight performances from an amazing cast help bring Powers story to vivid life. It’s a tricky job – they need to play actual human beings who also happen to have been extraordinary people. Avery Glymph finds and plays to great effect the internal conflict hiding underneath Malcolm X’s surface pedantic bombast. Dwayne Washington’s seductive Cooke makes real the singer’s own fears about his place in a rapidly changing world. Quincy Chad appropriately prowls the stage as the leonine Brown, luxuriating in his role as the quartet’s collective id. And Thomas Walter Booker has (and creates) enormous fun as the brash, infectiously charming Clay, just moments before he becomes Muhammad Ali. Lamar K. Cheston and Brenden Peifer play two N.O.I. bodyguards, perfectly shading the roles with the menace required.
Powers has set the theatrical bar high, then sailed over it with ease.