My youth was punctuated by several almost transcendent moments of discovery. One was when I picked up a paperback copy of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Another was when I first heard Sam Cooke’s haunting vocals in the song “A Change is Gonna Come.” The seminal 1970s action film Three the Hard Way introduced me to a bad-ass, leather-clad Jim Brown. And of course, Muhammad Ali was delivering laughs and wisdom to me, and millions of others, with all the rapid-fire delivery of a carnival barker.
If you asked me who my favorite people in the world were when I was 19, I’d have responded with the names of those four men, without hesitation. They each proved to be very different, but equally inspiring symbols of manhood, intelligence, faith and determination. I became an avid student of all four, devouring everything I could read or watch on any of them.
Then came the flashpoint. I was reading a copy of Mike Marqusee’s excellent Muhammad Ali book Redemption Song when I came across this paragraph:
On 25 February 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. After the fight, Clay chose to forgo the usual festivities at one of Miami’s luxury hotels and headed instead for the black ghetto, where he had made camp during training. He spent a quiet evening in private conversation with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, the great Cleveland Browns running back and an early champion of black rights in sports. The next morning, after breakfast with Malcolm, Clay met the press to confirm the rumors that he was involved with the Nation of Islam.
Boom. There you had it. My four most inspirational people were friends. Bigger still, they spent the night of Cassius Clay’s victory alone, together, in a hotel room. And the very next morning, Cassius Clay made the biggest announcement of his life. My mind was blown, and my imagination went wild as I started connecting the dots between the friendships of these four men. More books and interviews followed, as I learned how they met, what they learned from one another and how they related to each other. Making this the basis of a play seemed like a no-brainer.
I began writing One Night in Miami… about two years ago when Rogue Machine’s artistic director, John Perrin Flynn, asked me if I had any plays I wanted to submit for production at the theater. But in reality, the idea behind the play had been simmering inside me for over a decade.
I’ve always been a huge fan of historical fiction — tales that explore original stories featuring real life-people and events. The literary works of author Erik Larson immediately come to mind as high-water marks, with The Devil in The White City and In the Garden of Beasts telling such incredible tales that you feel compelled to learn more about the events and people featured in them long after you’ve turned that final page.
But real life can also be a huge burden. That was the greatest challenge while writing Miami — dealing with four iconic men, each of whom has a significant number of fans who consider themselves experts on everything they’ve done or said. In early developmental readings, the foursome’s fame threatened to weigh down the whole play. It didn’t really begin to sing until I moved away from all of the iconography and deconstructed who these guys were as men, and how that could aid (or taint) a friendship. Suddenly, they became relatable. Rather than try to tell an audience all that these men had accomplished, I set out to tell a coherent story involving these four characters drawn from my personal knowledge of them. If audience members wanted to learn more, a wealth of material was just an internet search away. This play is simply about one night, four friends and the many pivotal decisions that can happen in a single revelatory evening.
And though it is set in 1964, I’ve always viewed this as a very contemporary play. The issues each of the men is dealing with are mirrored by modern men (and women). The big difference being that the specter of death was hanging over these four, which raised the stakes immeasurably.
I think we’ve been successful, and I hope audiences have a fun time with the play. But on a personal level, I can’t help but see this story as a tragedy. This was the last evening these four friends were together. Within months, Malcolm and Ali would end their friendship. Sam Cooke would be shot and killed in a hotel room soon after, and Malcolm X would be assassinated just days before the one-year anniversary of this magical event.
But on this night, the possibilities seemed endless.
One Night In Miami…, Rogue Machine in Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., LA 90019. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. (No performance July 6.) Through July 28. Tickets: $30. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. 855-585-5185.
**All One Night in Miami photos by John Flynn.
Kemp Powers is a playwright, journalist, author and storyteller. A recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, his current projects include the development of his new play, The Two Reds. Kemp’s work was selected for publication in The Moth’s first-ever book of collected works, which will be released in September 2013, by Hyperion Books. He is a resident playwright at Rogue Machine Theatre, and lives in Los Angeles.