Fifth-graders have tough questions for 'One Night in Miami' cast

Photos from Hallett Fundamental Academy by John Moore for the DCPA.

Director Carl Cofield is an old pro at answering questions about the play One Night in Miami. He is in Denver to direct the acclaimed play by Kemp Powers for his second time. The play imagines what happened when Cassius Clay won the heavyweight boxing championship in 1964 and immediately withdrew to a hotel room with Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X.

But Cofield has never faced questions like the ones he and his actors took from the fifth-graders last week at Hallett Fundamental Academy, a Denver magnet school with a 95 percent African-American enrollment. Questions like:

  • Were African-Americans immigrants?
  • If we really did have a “separate but equal” society, do you things would still be “separate?”
  • If Malcolm X were still alive, what would he say about things today?
  • If you were an abolitionist, how would you end slavery? Is violence or nonviolence the solution?
  • Since people didn’t like Muhammad Ali, did he want to beat everybody up – or did he prefer to talk it out?

One student had not a question but a prescient comment about the rule of law that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern U.S. states from Reconstruction through 1965. “It was because of Jim Crow laws in those times that they couldn’t have the kind of schools white people had,” he offered.

Out of the mouths of babes.

Cofield was joined on the hot seat by actors Colby Lewis, who plays Cassius Clay in the DCPA’s staging of One Night in Miami that had its first preview performance on Friday; Morocco Omari, who plays football and movie star Jim Brown; and York Walker and William Oliver Watkins, who play bodyguards for Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam.

“Wow, these are the best questions,” Cofield told the students.

Carlotta Walls. Photo by John Moore. In the back of the Hallett library, smiling from ear to ear, stood Denver’s Carlotta Walls LaNier (pictured right). She is a member of the Little Rock Nine, the group of African-American students who were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. They attended only after the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation.

Walls especially loved when a boy timidly but straightforwardly asked the most loaded of questions: The one on “separate but equal.”

Specifically: “Would we have integrated schools?”

Walls liked it because, in the past 60 years of talking about the Little Rock Nine, no adult has ever asked her that question. “That’s why I prefer talking to student groups,” she said with a laugh. But she was happy to tackle it.

“If separate really were equal, I still feel we would have integrated schools because we have the right to have integrated schools,” she said. “However, you will notice that in any environment, groups of people congregate together. So if you were Asian and you said, ‘I want to be right here with all the other Asians,’ or, ‘I want to be in this group with all Chicanos,’ then that is your right.

“But at the same time, we also have a right to go across the line and be a part of a diverse, inclusive society. To me, that’s what this country is all about. “

Watkins, taking his shot at the question, told the room packed with 10-year-olds his belief that the very concept of “separate but equal” is flawed. 

Hallett Quote“It is impossible,” Watkins said. “If you have not gotten to the point where you can accept another person who is different from you, then I think society will implode on itself. Today, it is white and black. But then say we separate. OK, so now over here, we are all white. But now we separate again, say, people who are over 6-feet tall, and people who are under 6-feet tall. OK, now we separate people who have blue eyes and green eyes.

“If you have it in your soul that in order for you to survive, you have to be separate from people who are not like you, then I think that’s a cancer. And I think it will continue to eat at you and you will never be happy. So, no: I do not believe ‘separate but equal’ will work under any circumstance.”

And that was just for starters. Here’s how they took on the other questions:

Were African-Americans immigrants? 

Lewis tried to explain the difference between those who have come to America searching for a better life, and those who were brought here against their will.  Omari was more direct.

“No,” he said unflinchingly. “During the slave trade, 120 million Africans were brought over to this country on slave ships. Sixty million died. Why? Because when the Native American weren’t able to toil the land, they brought Africans over to do it. The slaves were bought and sold. They were treated like animals. Bred like animals. And if you didn’t follow the rules, bad things happened. You could get sold and taken away from your mother and father. You could get hung. They were not immigrants.”

If you were an abolitionist, how would you end slavery? Is violence or nonviolence the solution?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that, Watkins said. “There were people fighting to end slavery with their words and their fists and guns for hundreds of years. The Civil War finally did it – although a lot of people will tell you the war had more to do with economics than with what was morally correct. But my belief is that every single thing that happened was what it took to end slavery. There needed to be people who were willing to stand nonviolently, but there comes a time when you don’t have any more cheeks to turn. So there was no one answer.”

Hallett Principal Charmaine Keeton greets cast members. Photo by John Moore.  Denver. Photo by John Moore. Since people didn’t like Muhammad Ali, did he want to beat everybody up – or did he prefer to talk it out?

“I believe he did a little bit of both,” Lewis said. “He internalized all of the bad things that people were saying about him, and he internalized all of the bad things that were happening around him – like the Jim Crow laws that wouldn’t let him eat at the front of the restaurant. He took in all the writers who said he would never be a world champion. But he was a talker, too. He was notorious for spitting all of those words back into the faces of the people who doubted him. He took the things that made him angry, and he used it to give himself confidence to believe, ‘I can make it. I will succeed.’ He used his power in the media. So whenever reporters were there, he would talk junk to them and say things like, ‘I’m going to beat so-and-so in the fifth round – watch me.’ And he would do it, because of the belief he had in himself. He used all that that anger and injustice and that fueled his fights in the ring. So he did fight back, but in a very smart and specific way. So he battled back on two fronts.”

Omari said Ali used his simmering rage to his economic advantage as well.

“He used to tell people, ‘If you want see me get beat up, then you gotta come and pay your way in,’ ” Omari said. “He made people so angry that they would have to come see the fight. That made the purse bigger – and that meant he made more money. He called it, ‘Sour the people … sweeten the purse.’ ”

Hallett Fundamental Academy. Photo by John Moore.

Students from Hallett Fundamental Academy in Denver. Photo by John Moore.

If Malcolm X were still alive, what would he say about things today?

“If Malcolm X were looking at current conditions, I would guess he would say we need to empower ourselves, instead of looking for outside support from the government,” Cofield said. 

“I think Malcolm would say, ‘We need to save our own money. We need to open our own, or whatever. If we have our own businesses, we don’t have to tell someone to go to school and then go look for a job. We can tell someone, “Go to school, and when you are ready, I will have a job waiting for you.” ‘ ”

Omari called that strategy “reinvesting in yourself.”

“That means not going out and spending your money on the new Jordans,” he told the kids. “That means making your money work for you instead of you working for your money.

“Think about Oprah Winfrey.  She has economic freedom. She is able to go anywhere she wants to go in this world because she has the money.” 

Cofield and his actors told the students about One Night in Miami, but cautioned that the play itself is not appropriate for a younger audience to watch because of the language and subject matter. But he encouraged the students to read, to learn and to achieve.

The meeting was made possible by the Denver Chapter of The Links, Inc., which has adopted the two fifth-grade classes at Hallett for the last six years and provides them with  various educational and cultural enrichment experiences throughout the school year.  

Watkins left them with a word about Malcolm X.

“He had zero fear, and he believed in what he believed with all of his heart. I believe those two things together make you a superhero,” Watkins said. “When you have no fear, you can accomplish anything. That was his power. And I think all of us have the potential to have that power.”

One week after the Hallett talk, the Denver Chapter of The Links co-sponsored a sold-out preview performance of One Night in Miami with Denver African American Philanthropists.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Students from Hallett Fundamental Academy in Denver. Photo by John Moore.

The cast of ‘One Night in Miami’ poses with students from Hallett Fundamental Academy in Denver. Photo by John Moore.

‘One Night in Miami‘: Ticket information
Performances run through April 19
Space Theatre
Performances daily except Mondays
Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Our previous coverage of One Night in Miami:
Video: An inside look at the making of One Night in Miami
Video: DCPA cast gives shout-out to Baltimore Center Stage
Full casting announced
Video: Interview with One Night in Miami Director Carl Cofield
New Denver Center season includes One Night in Miami
Go to the official show page

Meet the cast video series (to date):

Meet Jason Delane (Malcolm X)
Meet William Oliver Watkins (Kareem)

Cast members with Carlotta Walls at Hallett Fundamental Academy in Denver. Photo by John Moore.
Cast members with Carlotta Walls LaNier at Hallett Fundamental Academy in Denver. Photo by John Moore.