Fighters in the ring

‘One Night in Miami’ invokes a heavyweight conversation on race relations

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Jennifer M. Koskinen

How best do we whittle ourselves into instruments for change? Is it by sharpening our tongues, hardening our fists or sweetening our songs? That’s the question at the heart of One Night in Miami…, which posits the conversations that might have unfolded while boxer Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football player Jim Brown spent the evening of Feb. 25, 1964 together in a hotel room debating the merits of how, or if, the others addressed the issues at hand in the simmering civil rights movement.

That night, having won the world heavyweight championship title from Sonny Liston, Clay and the others holed up in the Hampton House Motel in Miami’s segregated Overtown neighborhood for something of a celebration. The next morning, Clay would announce his conversion to Islam and his name change to Muhammad Ali. He drops that news, to mixed reviews, early in the evening and it’s a revisited point that laces through the conversations that follow in a to-the-minute kind of storytelling.

For One Night in Miami…, finishing its world premiere run at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on April 19, playwright Kemp Powers has saddled Clay with a heavy dose of bravado — think early generation renditions of that famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” procla mation — but Colby Lewis carries the load with ease. His Clay tempers the boasting with the earnestness of a 22-year-old who has full confidence in his own skills and choices, and who cannot possibly imagine the ways in which those decisions will shade the decades to follow.

The bait laid in the early minutes of the play is that of Clay’s pending conversion, but it’s not the central conversation or argument of the night. How and why Clay was converted, and how the battle between Cooke and Malcom X affects any lingering doubts he might have, is unclear, though we know the outcome. He’ll convert, and be ostracised for it, and find a way to reemerge from that setback swinging.

One Night in Miami… is not the story of Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali as much as it is the story is of Malcolm X being Malcolm X, and Sam Cooke being Sam Cooke. The two spar over one anothers roles, responsibilities and weapons of choice in confronting a deeply segregated and uncomfortable American landscape. Whether to fight or to charm, to integrate or extricate and even whether they prefer their racism overt or not makes for heady conversation.

Are athletes Brown and Clay gladiators sent to slaughter for the amusement of the crowd, or agents of change in their own right as they break barriers to access? And is Malcolm X, with his furious speeches and his suit-wearing body guards from the Nation of Islam, aiding the enemy? Cooke cautions him, “All that anger can keep people from seeing how righteous you are.”

Cooke, played marvelously by Nik Walker, gets mocked for making nice to white audiences, but he sees a chance for equality to come through music — one chart for one people, not one chart for R&B (black) musicians and one for pop (white) — and has founded his own record label to pursue that end. Not just a slice of the pie, indeed. He may not be ready to sing an anthem for change, but change might come anyway.

ON THE BILL: One Night in Miami… at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1400 Curtis St., Denver, 800-641-1222. Through April 19.