With One Night in Miami, the riveting play that just kicked off Miami New Drama’s second season, artistic director Michel Hausmann hits straight to the heart of his troupe’s mission – presenting work that’s central to Miami. Not only because of the play’s uniquely Miami story. But because that story speaks to and for a community that rarely appears onstage here, bringing to life a piece of our oft-discarded history at a pivotal moment. That connection became thrillingly, spine-tinglingly apparent in Sunday afternoon’s performance.
One Night in Miami tells the story of the night in 1964 that the unknown Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight boxing champion. Instead of celebrating on Miami Beach, the 22 year old boxer – barred from the Beach by Jim Crow era segregation – spent the night in a room at the Hampton House motel in Brownsville with civil rights leader Malcolm X, football player Jim Brown, and soul singer Sam Cooke. The evening was full of promise and change. The next day, Clay – who was close to Malcolm X – announced that he was joining the Nation of Islam and taking the name Muhammed Ali, launching a life at the nexus of sports, politics, culture and celebrity that would become a template for a very modern kind of figure. Within a year, Malcolm X and Cooke would, tragically, be dead.
Over the course of the play, the men talk about their doubts and ambitions, argue about idealism and compromise in a racist system, about whether ideological purity or winning – in football, in the ring, in the pop world (Cooke gloats how a group on his record label sold a song to the Rolling Stones, who got the fame, but the songwriters got the paycheck) counts for success. The four idols become human, driven by passion, doubt, anger, pride, longing, personality, humor. One Night in Miami is, as playwright Kemp Powers said in a panel after the Sunday show, about what it means to be a black man, told in the voices of his idols. “This is what my friends and I argued about in our dorm rooms,” he said. “All I did was reverse engineer that argument into the mouths of people who inspired us.” The actors – Kieron J. Anthony as Cassius Clay, Jason Delane as Malcolm X, and Esau Pritchett as Jim Brown – are fantastic. And it’s worth going just to hear Leon Thomas III (a Grammy-winner, Broadway prodigy and star of Nickelodeon’s Victorious who sent my teenage daughter over the moon) channel Sam Cooke in gutsy, soulful renditions of two of his songs.
A panel after Sunday’s show illuminated what was at stake here, in a city that consistently erases or ignores its African-American community, from the destruction of Overtown by highway construction to the brutal repression that caused and followed the Liberty City riots to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Hausmann is always passionate about his work, but he seems on fire about One Night. He pointed out that although over half the people in Miami-Dade are immigrants, and only 11% are white, (it’s actually 13%), the vast majority of plays done here are in English, by, for and about the mainstream U.S. Anglo audience and culture. “How can we move forward if we don’t talk to our neighbors?” he asked, leaning forward. “If you are only telling stories about the white experience to white audiences, you are supporting white supremacy.” It was, interestingly, the most confrontational moment of the afternoon.
But not the most moving. Credit Hausmann for bringing One Night, which premiered in L.A. in 2012, and has played in multiple other locales, to the city where it belongs. Even director Carl Cofield, raised in Richmond Heights (yes, home to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum) and part of the first graduating class of New World School of the Arts, had never heard of this gathering of stars before Powers asked him to direct. “That I grew up in Miami and I didn’t know this story scared me,” Powers said. “These men were part of my development as a black man and as an artist. We get in this cycle of regurgitated myths. There are so many other stories that need to be told.”
One Night is one of them. On Sunday, a woman in the audience stood up and said she’d brought her mother, who grew up in Overtown and met Ali as a teenager, over from Tampa, and her young daughter. A man who’d come from Cuba at age 14 told of meeting Ali through the man who sponsored his Little League team, and how enormous and impressive he was. I have a feeling that many people have similar stories, and wish there was a way to collect them. As they spoke, the play seemed to reach out and came alive in a different way, through those people who’d come to understand a moment and a man that had touched their lives. A piece of their history, of their city, that mattered in a way it never had before.
One Night in Miami runs Thursday to Sunday through Nov. 18th at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets are $35-$60 at www.colonymb.org.