Play Explores An Unforgettable Night For Four Black American Icons

Nov 8, 2018

A new play at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach tells the story of the night Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title and became Muhammad Ali.

The show, “One Night in Miami,” takes the audience back to February 25, 1964, and recounts the history of a celebratory night in an Overtown motel room with four best friends: Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X.

One Night In Miami playwright Kemp Powers spent years researching and gathering accounts of the conversations that might have happened in that room. He features an entire cast of men of color cast and sets the play in a single room at the Hampton House Motel. The production’s theme song is the famous civil rights ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke.

In the motel room, there are heated discussions take place between the friends, Malcolm X is deciding whether or not to break from the Nation of Islam, Sam Cooke performs musical numbers, Jim Brown may become a movie star and Cassius Clay renames himself Muhammad Ali.

Esau Pritchett, who plays football star Jim Brown, and Michel Hausmann, the artistic director of Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre, joined Sundial to talk about what about what exactly happened during those pivotal hours in the Hampton House Motel room and the importance of the play amidst the current climate of racism.

The play is showing through November 18.

WLRN: All the characters in this play are globally iconic figures. You play a legendary football player (Jim Brown). How did you prepare for this role?

Prichett: I feel like I've been preparing for a long time. My father was a huge football fan. I remember even before I was interested in the sport he would always talk about this guy Jim Brown. My father was from outside Montgomery, Alabama. So eventually I started to watch some archival footage of Jim Brown on the football field and he was like a super hero. I wish that anybody who follows the sport today could watch the archival footage of Jim Brown and recognize that this dude is the best football player who ever lived. So in terms of preparation, one of the things that we didn't want to do was ... create an impersonation of the characters, we wanted to capture the essence. I think about Jim at that time and about what masculinity was considered to be... the way he would move and stand and of course his voice. Ultimately for our purposes our play is not about the public face of these men. What we want to do is capture the friendship of these individuals.

Why is this show so important right now?

Hausmann: I think it's evident. It's important. We live in the era of Kaepernick. We are living in the era where bigotry seems to be accepted. You saw from the electoral votes and comments that racism is still a tool to excite the base and I think the importance of this show is that we live in a city where we don't have a monument of the Jim Crow era or, you know, a statue to commemorate segregation, and it's easy to come here and forget that this was the deep south.

In the 60s there was this discussion about race and equality. Here we are 50 years later more and you still have it.

Prichett: Yeah, that's the issue. That's one of the reasons why I love that Michel has decided to produce this particular play. It's quite easy to look back and say that was so very long ago, that these things are not still happening, especially when you think in terms of that segregation doesn't exist as it did or in the same form as it did 50 years ago. But I think it's quite telling that we're having the same conversations trying to figure out how to make this thing work 50 years later.

What do you hope the audience takes away?

Hausmann: The beauty and the poetry of this play is that it takes place in 1964 but you can't forget throughout the entire 80 minutes of it that you are in 2018. So having those two times coexisting in your head is brilliant.

Prichett: As a black man in America who's pretty astute with our history when I read this script I was embarrassed that I did not know this piece of history. I couldn't believe it. I mean look at the icons that we're talking about: Sam Cooke would be Michael Jackson of his time, Jim Brown is still considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, Malcolm X is an absolute political mastermind and rhetorical genius, and of course Cassius Clay who would become Muhammad Ali. These dudes were really good friends and I didn't know that. There's something wrong in that. So now I feel really good that we have an opportunity to educate an audience that these things did happen.