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One Night in Miami

Oh, to be a fly on the wall that night in Miami, February 25, 1964, when 22-year old Cassius Clay (Colby Lewis)—following his unexpected technical knockout of Sonny Liston and elevation to heavyweight champion of the world—gathered in a motel room with three prominent friends: the political and religious firebrand, Malcolm X (Jason Delane), the extraordinary singer and music industry pioneer, Sam Cooke (Nik Walker), and the greatest NFL running back of all time, Jim Brown (Morocco Omari).

In lieu of being being an inobtrusive insect overhearing the ensuing conversation, playwright Kemp Powers has reimagined what it was like in this engaging, funny, and deadly serious discussion between these four groundbreaking giants in their own fields and in race relations.

Given the ongoing racist climate in the United States, from its conception until now, the responses of these four men to conditions they faced, just over a half century ago, are timely in their contribution to our present national discussion.

Credit must go to director Carl Cofield and Elissa Myers Casting/Paul Foquet, CSA, for part of the verisimilatude of this story, as the four actors bear a resemblance, in one aspect or another, to the original four gents. From there, the players take it to the next level.

Colby Lewis as Cassius Clay
Colby Lewis as Cassius Clay
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Lewis embodies the playful braggadoccio and swagger of Clay who, the next day announced a name change to Muhammad Ali (and later converted to Islam in 1975). This was a man who: refused to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, then waging a war against the Vietnamese, declaring himself to be a conscientious objector; was arrested and stripped of his heavyweight crown and banished from boxing for four years, when the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, thus being deprived of his livelihood during the prime of his physical peak performance; and then proceeded to win back the crown two more times, the only man in the history of boxing to do so.

Jason Delane as Malcolm X
Jason Delane as Malcolm X
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Yet on this night, Clay is unsure of his commitment to the name change, which brings Malcolm X to press his case. Less than one year after this night, in collaboration with Alex Haley, author of the 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (later adapted by ABC-TV into the record-breaking "Roots" mini-series), The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published. In 1998, Time named it as one of ten "required reading" nonfiction books. Delane captures Malcolm's focused commitment to the cause, which the former "Detroit Red" saw in both spiritual and political terms.

Nik Walker as Sam Cooke
Nik Walker as Sam Cooke
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
Malcolm X's adamancy turns its critical eye toward Cooke, whom he accuses (more as a prod than a contention) of ignoring the cause, but Cooke will have none of it, citing his economically independent label and its support for various African-American artists (including Billy Preston, Lou Rawls, Johnnie Taylor, and Bobby Womack). Through the course of the evening, Malcolm keeps pressing Cooke, including a short jaunt to the record store, where he buys the latest Bob Dylan LP and returns to play "Blowin' in the Wind." Later, alone with Clay, Cooke shares his latest song, "A Change is Gonna Come," which became an anthem of the civil rights movement. Walker's voice is sweet, just like Cooke's, and provides a couple of stunning interludes.

Morocco Omari as Jim Brown
Morocco Omari as Jim Brown
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
And then there's Jim Brown. Forget all the famous running backs who played after the passing game had become dominant and benefited from the uncertainty of defenses over play-calling. In his day, everyone knew Brown was going to get the ball. They beat on him; yet, the stats are plain as day: each time he touched the ball, he would ground out more yards than anyone else ever to play his position (career average: 5.2 yards per carry). Brown was one empowered guy, facing various forms of racism at Syracuse on the field and off, dating white girls despite the threats he received. Its worth noting that in this practice, Brown stuck to his preferences (when he later moved into film acting) and appeared in one of the first interracial sex scenes, with Raquel Welch, in the 1969 western, 100 Rifles.

William Oliver Watkins as Kareem and York Walker as Jamaal, Nation of Islam guards
William Oliver Watkins as Kareem
and York Walker as Jamaal,
Nation of Islam guards
Photo: Jennifer M. Koskinen
In this story, Brown is the peacemaker. To the Cleveland Browns great and Hall of Famer, he was engaged in the struggle every day of his life, just like Cassius, Malcolm, and Sam. This is what drove him through defenses, including his famed rivalry with Sam Huff, the New York Giant's illustrious middle linebacker. Omari emmanates Brown's aura of supreme confidence. When Malcolm's so-called bodyguards (actually they were tailing him for The Nation of Islam) threaten to mix it up, Brown simply tells them to turn around, because he will tear them to shreds if they dare cross him. End of that problem.

But beyond all these marvelous personalities and their on-again-off-again camaradarie, the conversations are a masterful means of showing theatre audiences (mostly Caucasians) the African-American perspective on racism and the struggle to overcome the rigged playing field. Certainly, as recent events clearly indicate, conditions for many African-Americans are no better than than they ever were. Nine months after the night of this story, Sam Cooke was murdered under suspicious circumstances. Two months after that, Malcolm X was assassinated.

Denver Center Theatre Company's production of One Night in Miami runs through April 19th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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