Genesis Oliver (l), and Royce Johnson
Holding true to the goal of fully engaging its audiences, Center Stage draws theatergoers into the production of Kemp Powers’ play, “One Night in Miami,” immediately upon entering the lobby. Transformed into ringside at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Feb. 25, 1964, the setup features boxer Hitman Harmon, dancing around the ring, throwing punches at an imaginary sparring partner, and lusty-voiced singer Etta James, teasing the audience and crooning a spirited rendition of Sam Cooke’s popular ballad, “Cupid.”
As onlookers meet-and-greet the energetic young boxer, others seize the opportunity to throw a few punches behind the screen setup for shadowboxing. While some examine the odds posted on the nearby betting board, others scramble for Etta’s autograph. By the time the ring announcer closes out the preliminary activities and announces “the big event,” moving the crowd into The Pearlstone Theater, excitement and anticipation fill the air.
The sparsely decorated one-room set, Cassius Clay’s room at the Hampton House hotel, is framed by videos depicting the ongoing civil rights struggles of Blacks through the years. It is in this room that Clay celebrates his 1964 Heavyweight Championship victory over Sonny Liston, with his friends, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown.
Pictures (left to right): Grasan Kingsberry, Sullivan Jones, Tory Andrus
Assigned to protect Malcolm X, Nation of Islam Brother Kareem’s (Royce Johnson) stoic and unyielding presence and the almost comedic accompaniment of younger and newer Brother Jamal (Genesis Oliver) seem to reflect the tone of the twists and turns in subject matter and temperament during the gathering. As the party unfolds, the friends exchange their fair share of “guy talk,” and, as the conversation deepens, their uncertainties and, to a degree, their vulnerability, are revealed.
Set against the backdrop of some of the Civil Rights Movement’s most volatile times, the play depicts its already iconic main characters as humans, more so than heroes, and allows the audience to see them as supportive, although sometimes chiding, friends. The brash and beautiful, soon-to-be Muhammad Ali (Sullivan Jones); multi-talented, charismatic Sam Cooke (Grasan Kingsberry); chiseled athletic standout Jim Brown (Esau Pritchett); and learned elder Malcolm X (Tory Andrus) portray a special bond of friendship and respect that proves to be deeper than some of them even realize.
Looking like single, young men of the times, ready for a boys’ night out, dressed in slim-flitting tapered slacks and body-hugging shirts, Clay, Cook and Brown’s attire draws a sharp contrast to the appearance and ideology of a married Malcolm X, who is nattily dressed in a suit and bowtie, as are his Muslim brothers. While the no-frills hotel room setting serves as a reminder of a time when there were few places for Black men to gather and speak freely, its simplicity serves as the perfect background for a stage filled with an abundance of eye candy. (Sorry. Hard not to notice…)
Brilliantly, the use of projection and lighting also add to the feel of the production. Each time an image or video flashes on the frame of the stage, the audience is reminded that although the play is a fictional account, the times and concerns are very real. Each time Brother Kareem steps out of the shadows, his appearance sparks a feeling of dread and ominous, matched by only Malcolm’s demeanor and looks of concern.
Well worth seeing, ‘One Night in Miami’ has been enthusiastically received by audiences, and, due to a high demand for tickets, Center Stage has extended its run for a second time, through Feb. 22.
Tickets for “One Night in Miami” can be purchased at www.centerstage.org or at the Center Stage Box Office, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202-3686. Phone: 410.332.0033.