ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI...At Center Stage is a Real Knockout
There are few theaters like Center Stage to get one in the mood for the play they are about to see. While a theater patron may know that ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI...involves the great heavyweight fighter Cassius Clay, there is a look of surprise on many when you notice a boxing ring set up in the lobby of the theater and a boxer (played by Baltimore actor Ronald Jeffries) and his trainer in the ring getting ready for action. There is much more. There is a chalk board with betting odds listed for the Clay versus Sonny Liston fight. There is a tale of the tape comparing the fighters with a scale in front. There are seven high definition televisions which show short excerpts of the historic Feb. 25, 1964 fight, a Howard Cosell interview with the champion, and other historical videos.
Outside the Pearlstone Theater, you will find yourself in the reception area of the Hampton House Hotel located in the north side of Miami in an area called Overton, also known as "Colored Town". It was one of the only establishments open to African Americans and became a hot spot for notable Black celebrities. On the wall are autographed photos of Harry Belafonte, Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole, Joe Lewis, and Martin Luther King. There are brown leather suitcases and magazines such "Life" (with John F. Kennedy on the cover) and "Ebony" magazine with a cover story about "The Future of Negroes in Baseball" from May, 1949.
As you enter the theater, surrounding the set of a hotel room (I couldn't help recalling another Center Stage play set in a hotel room: THE MOUTAINTOP about Martin Luther King) there are video montages of the era thanks to Production Designer Alex Koch and Set Designer Brenda Davis. Included are images of Fran and Bill's Restaurant, Black porters on trains, Pacific Air Lines, films of Black families in non-integrated swimming pools, and clips from the Andy Griffith Show. That's a lot to ingest even before one word is spoken on stage.
Once again the Center Stage program is packed full of information as background thanks to Production Dramaturg Catherine Maria Rodriguez. Following the historic victory by Clay, he opted to avoid the celebrations at the luxurious Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach and instead headed to Overton the Black neighborhood where he trained. He invited three of his friends to join him in a quiet, laid back celebration with singing star Sam Cooke, Cleveland Browns' star running back Jim Brown, and Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X.
I have to credit Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah for both choosing this outstanding new play which is making its East Coast premiere (he credits a Center Stage Board Member for recommending the play which premiere in Los Angeles) and directing with sensitivity, pathos, and humor all at the same time.
Casting Director Pat McCorkle should be recognized for bringing together an amazing cast of actors who all bring their "A" game.
It is thrilling to observe Sullivan Jones in role of Cassius Clay who at the very young age of 22 became the Heavy Weight Champion. He has all the moves of Clay, the dance steps, the fast hands, and that "handsome" face. Jones created the role in the 2013 world premiere of the play in LA. The audience falls in love with him after he looks in a mirror and shouts in glee, "Oh, my God, why am I so pretty?"
Playing football star Jim Brown is Esau Pritchett. I recall Brown playing for the Browns. He was noted for making it look like he was hurt after each play he ran as a running back and would slump back into the huddle before amazing the defense with more terrific plays. Brown while at Syracuse (where he was both a football star and lacrosse star),had his scholarship withdrawn after he refused to go along with the requirement that he not date any White women. Pritchett is a big man and easily could be seen as Brown. Brown explains to his friends his desire to become a Hollywood actor which he achieves the same year in "Rio Conchos" as a "Buffalo Soldier". He is best known for his role in the 1966 film "The Dirty Dozen". Brown is proud to be a Black man yet shows no desire to join the Nation of Islam. He explained he couldn't give up his grandmother's pork chops.
While Cooke and Brown want to talk about how terrific the evening was and hope to celebrate with booze and women, due to the presence of Muslim Malcolm X, the refrigerator instead only offers vanilla ice cream (how ironic) which is scooped up during the play. There is no booze, there are no women. Just a fascinating colloquy among the four men about racism and how to improve the plight of the Black community.
The historic and iconic Malcolm X is wonderfully portrayed by Troy Andrus. There is much on his mind as the Nation of Islam has many disagreements with him and he is always suspicious of possible attempts at his life. Malcolm X was instrumental in Clay's becoming an Muslim and the next day, Clay would change his name to Muhammad Ali. The play becomes more serious as both Clay and Malcolm stop the celebration and bend and kneel in prayer. It is his desire to persuade the two non-believers, Cooke and Brown, to the ways of Islam but is unsuccessful.
He confronts Cooke about his choice of music and degrades him for recording only songs like "You Send Me" and "Cupid" that do not help with the "cause". He does successfully persuade musician Cooke to use his art to help the fight by playing him Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" which Cooke then used as an inspiration and led to his "A Change is Gonna Come" in response to Dylan's anthem.
Cooke is played by Broadway veteran Grasan Kingsberry who is blessed with a melliferous voice. After the play, I asked him how his audition went and he responded that since he was on tour with MOTOWN:THEMUSICAL, he sent in a Youtube tape. He was then brought in for an in person audition. Grasan plays a nice guitar in the play but confided in me he did not know how to play the instrument and thanked Sullivan Jones for teaching him.
One of the highlights of the evening is when Kingsberry heads into the audience for a mini-concert. He embodies amazing charisma.
Cooke not only was an accomplished singer, as manager of the singing group the Valentinos, led by Bobby Womack, he allowed the Rolling Stones to sing "It's All Over Now", their first major hit.
Both Cooke and Malcolm X were tragically shot and killed shortly after the memorable evening of Feb. 25, 1964.
Playing two Nation of Islam bodyguards are Royce John (Kareem) and Genesis Oliver (Jamaal). Brother Jamaal couldn't resist getting autographs from Clay, Cooke, and Brown.
The issue of voting rights and racism is still alive and at the end of the play, there is a quick reminder with a montage that brings that issue home.
Adding to the enjoyment of the evening is effective lighting by Colin D. Young and great Sound Design by Shane Rettig (notice the change when Cooke enters the audience).
Playwright Kemp Powers has a great future ahead of him. The actors were thrilled that he attended rehearsals and helped dramatically. He is the resident playwright at the Rogue Machine Theatre Company in Los Angeles.
I truly believe this play has legs that could possibly land on Broadway. Do not miss this historic event.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI has been EXTENDED AGAIN beyond Feb. 8. There are added shows on Friday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m., two shows on Saturday Feb. 14, and two shows on Sunday Feb. 15 at 2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 20 at 8 p.m., two shows on Feb. 21, and the final performance on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.
The World Premiere Musical MARLEY comes to Center Stage May 6 - June 14, 2015. You can get a taste of the great iconic singer Bob Marley on Feb. 6 at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St at 8 p.m. where five reggae musicians, including the Unity Reggae Band celebrate his birthday. Call 410-662-0069.
On Feb. 7, the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. will celebrate Marley with a night of music, dancing, and the Yellow Dubmarine. Call 410-276-1651.