In the immediate moments after Cassius Clay shocked the world—defeating notorious bruiser Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Fla., to win the heavyweight boxing championship in February 1964—he’s joined in the ring by Sam Cooke. Mr. Soul, as Cooke was known, also joined Clay, pro-football great Jim Brown and Malcolm X afterward at the Hampton House hotel in the black section of Miami. And One Night in Miami, which runs at the Center Stage in Baltimore until February 8, is first-time playwright Kemp Powers’ fictionalized account of that historic gathering.
The gathering on the night of Feb. 25, 1964, has drawn curiosity because the very next day, then-Cassius Clay, only 22 at the time, announced that he had converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He had, for all intents, been a member of the NOI for at least two years prior to the Liston fight, and his coming out, as it were, was intended to have its most dramatic effect if and when he won the title.
But One Night in Miami is less focused on Ali’s conversion and instead delves deeply into the fears, ambitions, foibles and contradictions of an iconic group of men who, as quiet as it was kept, were relatively close friends throughout much of 1963 and into early 1964. The gathering has generated its own mystique, in part because within the space of a year, both Malcolm and Cooke would be dead from gunshot wounds.
Though Ali’s victory was the occasion for the gathering, Ali is himself relegated to the play’s background as Malcolm and Cooke—the two eldest members of the collective—take center stage, rehearsing well-known debates in the black community as old as the debates between W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, and as contemporary as the divergent career arcs of Nas and Jay Z.
At the center of the spirited debate between Malcolm and Cooke, portrayed by Tory Andrus and Grasan Kingsberry, respectively, is the former’s desire for black entertainers and celebrities to be more direct in their attacks on Jim Crow racism and the latter’s push to work more indirectly from inside the system. Their conversation puts on the table the issue of responsibility; Malcolm literally clowns Cooke for recording so-called lightweight hits like “You Send Me” (his first and biggest pop hit) and “Cupid,” while “the white boy,” Bob Dylan, wrote the most substantive pop song of the movement with “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke himself confided to friends that his signature anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was written in response to Dylan’s song.
As a retort, Cooke offers a brief history that pivots off the fact that he was one of the few black musicians of the era who controlled his own publishing rights. As manager of the Valentinos, led by the late Bobby Womack, he also allowed the Rolling Stones to cover the group’s “It’s All Over Now.” The song, which was the first major hit for the Stones and earned Womack publishing royalties, created the context, as Cooke asserts in the play, where the “white boys were working for us.” With the traditional civil rights movement focused on voting rights, a fight that these four men were largely on the fringes of, Cooke is emphatic in the play that he didn’t simply want “a piece of the pie” but wanted the “recipe.”
Throughout the play, the characters engage unapologetically in black vernacular reminiscent of that wonderful kitchen scene in Ava DuVernay’s Selma—which may be the blackest moment we see in American cinema this year. And in addition to the four main characters, the play also features two additional characters, members of the Fruit of Islam—Brother Kareem (Royce Johnson) and Brother Jamaal (Genesis Oliver)—whose earnestness as a new NOI convert is a reminder of the real work that the organization did in rehabilitating a number of black men. In one of the most joyful scenes in the play, Brother Jamaal sheepishly asks for the autographs of Ali, Cooke and Brown, underscoring the ways in which these men, including Malcolm X, were part of an unprecedented generation of young black celebrities.
Brothers Kareem and Jamaal are ostensibly at the hotel to protect Minister Malcolm, but as the audience discovers, they were really present to guarantee that Malcolm didn’t talk Ali out of going public with his conversion, since the minister was at odds with the Nation of Islam at the time.
Though everyone’s expectations and eyes are on Clay/Ali throughout the play—actor Sullivan Jones is as “pretty” as Ali was in his youth—One Night in Miami reminds us that the man who would come to be known as the greatest of all time was only 22 at the time.
Ali’s devout pursuit of Islam and devotion to black nationalist politics speak to the influence of Malcolm X; his comfort on the national stage speaks to the influence of Sam Cooke; and his success as a professional athlete reflects the example of Jim Brown. This play illustrates that he was, indeed, the symbol, if not the realization, of the dream of black power that was conceived in that hotel room in 1964.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.