Any playwright can stick celebrity facsimiles together in a room; it takes real talent not only to render those portraits believable but also to invest the encounter with dramatic weight. In “One Night in Miami…,” first-time scribe Kemp Powers potently imagines what went down among buddies Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown on the February 1964 night when Clay claimed the heavyweight crown. Investors and A-listers are reportedly circling this world preem from L.A. producing company Rogue Machine, sensing the commercial potential of four plum leading roles, crackling good dialogue and timely themes.
Helmer Carl Cofield deftly manages the easy banter among four old pals whose partying is as profane as it is impromptu. Few besides Clay, lest we forget, expected him to prevail that night, and there’s plenty of awed respect along with all the razzing. Young Matt Jones captures the all-consuming confidence and eagerness we associate with The Greatest, jumping on the bed to reenact his triumph. It’s not too soon for him to wail, “Why am I so pretty?”
Societal upheaval inevitably insinuates its way into the seedy motel room, recreated to a tacky tee by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. Malcolm (an intensely wired Jason Delane) insists prominent black achievers take an unequivocal civil rights stand. His adamancy chafes Cooke (Burl Moseley, mellow but no less high-strung), whose craftier business model has the likes of the Rolling Stones covering R&B hits as the functional equivalent of employees. Most of today’s African-American empowerment issues are jawed out here between vanilla ice cream provided by Malcolm and secret shots of hooch out of Sam’s luggage.
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At the same time all four icons are in a process of self-reinvention, which separates them even further. Brown (dangerous, droll Jason E. Kelley) knows the score where race in America is concerned, avowing a preference for upfront racist rednecks over condescending liberals as he forges a post-NFL movie career. Cooke, for all the water he dashes on Malcolm’s fire, agonizes over whether he should be crooning “Yoooouuuu…send me” to fat cats in nightclubs while a skinny Jewish kid from Minnesota is out there explaining what’s really blowin’ in the wind.
And then there’s the Nation of Islam, for which the new champ is about to change his last name to X even as the more famous X’s differences with leadership, personified by two solemn, ubiquitous bodyguards (Giovanni Adams and Damu Malik), are coming to a head. Even those unaware of what would transpire at the Audubon Ballroom almost exactly one year later will be moved as differing political visions become intensely personal.
A few glaring instances of 20/20 hindsight aside, Powers weaves together multiple strains of plot and character with a seasoned pro’s skill. His mission to present a believable slice-of-life with contemporary resonance is, like Clay’s, achieved in a decisive knockout.