Celebrities hanging out together have become quite the artistic muse. A photograph of Richard Nixon and Elvis shaking hands inspired a movie. The urban legend of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando driving out of New York City after the World Trade Center buildings fell was made into a British TV show and short story.
In that vein comes One Night in Miami, the entertaining stage play at Colony Theatre through November 18, imagines a night of February 25 1964, when a young boxer named Cassius Clay won the boxing heavyweight title and celebrated in an Overtown motel room with Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X. Throughout the course of 90 minutes, audiences are privy to a fictional recounting of Cassius Clay deciding to rename himself Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke experimenting with writing the song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Malcolm X wrestling with breaking away from the Nation of Islam, and Jim Brown talking about being a movie star.
At first it is jarring to see the actors cast to play these oh so photographed figures. The actor Jason Delane is stockier than we’re used to seeing Malcolm X, and Kieron Anthony doesn’t look much like Clay. But the cast has strong enough acting chops that a few minutes into the play, the fact that none of the four are dead ringers for their characters is forgotten. Anthony portrays Clay’s famous overconfidence as a mask for uncertainty, Delane has Malcolm X carrying the weight of the world, Esau Pritchett is as quick with a wise crack as Jim Brown. Most impressive is Leon Thomas III as Sam Cooke, whose singing voice and guitar playing pays proper tribute to the soul legend.
Those who demand a traditional plot structure might find themselves disappointed. This play is more of a hang, a character study of four of the most famous African-American men of the 20th century spending a night together. Playwright Kemp Powers infuses each of the protagonists with a distinct voice that rings true to what we know about these men. Powers’ dialogue winks at the audience with the fates of these figures, foreshadowing the murders of Sam Cooke and Malcolm X and bringing tragic laughs when Clay tells Brown he’d never play football because it’s too dangerous. Themes like racial identity and artistic integrity pop up, but getting to see the camaraderie and conflict between these four men is the play’s greatest strength.
Beyond the play’s title, Miami itself is not really a central character in the production. With the exception of a mention of the Fontainebleau Hotel and the impressive recreation of the Hampton House Motel where the entirety of the play is set, this story could have taken place anywhere in America. But there is a certain fascination in imagining these four giants being so closeby. And by the end, audiences will be moved to sadness, knowing these four young men are now so far away.
One Night in Miami. Through November 18 at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-1040; colonymb.org. Tickets cost $35-$60.