By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
On an auspicious night in Miami, the new World Heavyweight Champion, Cassius Clay (Thomas Walter Booker), celebrates his success with his friends; football player Jim Brown (Quincy Chad), spiritual leader and social activist Malcolm X (Avery Glymph) and singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Dwayne Washington) in “One Night in Miami” by Kemp Powers.
The next morning, Clay joins the Nation of Islam and becomes Muhammad Ali, just as Malcolm X was severing ties with the religious order.
While the four iconic figures did gather in the Hampton House Motel in February 25, 1964, no one really knows what went on that night. Powers provides his own perspective to the story.
Cooke and Brown are hoping the celebration would be more festive (with women), but only the four men are invited into the motel room, while two bodyguards Kareem (Lamar K. Cheston) and Jamaal (Brenden Peifer) stand outside surveilling the motel grounds.
Instead of celebrating the men bicker. Cooke and X argue about philosophy. X believes that Cooke could be using his platform as a famous singer to speak up about injustices against African Americans.
“One Night in Miami” contains a lot of witty repartee, arguments about race relations and vanilla ice cream.
Washington is amazing as Cooke. At one point, he flashes back to a particular performance and serenades the audience with a mellifluous rendition of “You Send Me.” It’s a spectacular moment – a real show stopper.
Glymph looks and sounds like a young Malcolm X. It’s uncanny, but his performance is more than just cosplay. While he imbues X with righteous indignation, Glymph finds the man’s boyish charm. There are some great moments when X catches himself enjoying the company of his eclectic comrades and damps down his enthusiasm.
Chad is distractingly handsome, but gives a multifaceted performance.
There’s not much to Cassius Clay, but Booker manages to shine as the Champ.
Cheston and Peifer hand in fine performances as well.
Tony Ferrieri’s set is stunning. A classic 60s motel in Miami, awash in pink and sea foam green. The two flights give us the illusion that an entire motel has been plopped onto the City stage.
Dominque Fawn Hill’s costume are retro without being over-the-top. They are simple and subdued garments but perfect choices (keeping Brown in shades of brown might have been a little cheeky, though).
Director Reginald L. Douglas does a good job with the actors. They are some great moments, especially whenever Washington sings. The play is a little preachy and, aside from a few hilarious jokes and some engaging character work, there’s not much going on. Straight talk among friends.
The point it does make is worth hearing. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone and hear a fresh perspective and see theater that challenges you. It just takes a while to get there.
“One Night in Miami” runs until December 1st 2019 at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.