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 towers fell was made into a British TV show and short story.
In that vein comes One Night in Miami, an entertaining stage play showing at Colony Theatre through November 18. The work imagines the night of February 25, 1964, when a young boxer named Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title and celebrated in an Overtown motel room with Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X. Throughout the play's 90 minutes, audiences are privy to a fictional recounting of 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's jarring to see the actors cast to play these highly photographed figures. Jason Delane is stockier than we're used to seeing Malcolm X, and Kieron Anthony doesn't look much like Clay. But they have such strong acting chops that a few minutes into the play, the fact that none of the four is a dead ringer for his character 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 wisecrack as Brown. Most impressive is Leon Thomas III, whose singing voice and guitar playing pay proper tribute to soul legend Sam Cooke.
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Those who expect 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 each of these men. Powers' dialogue winks at the audience with the fates of these figures, foreshadowing the murders of Cooke and Malcolm X and bringing tragic laughs when Clay tells Brown he would never play football because it's too dangerous. Themes such as racial identity and artistic integrity pop up, but getting to see the camaraderie and conflict among these four men is the play's greatest strength.
Despite the play's title, Miami itself is not really a central character in the production. With the exception of a mention of the Fontainebleau and the impressive re-creation 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 in the Magic City. And by the end, audiences will be moved to sadness knowing these young men are now so far away.
One Night in Miami. Through November 18 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-1040; colonymb.org. Tickets cost $35 to $60.