How 'Miami' playwright accidentally discovered The Black Justice League

In the video above, the actors from ‘One Night in Miami’ talk about portraying four of the greatest entertainment and cultural icons of the 20th century at varying stages of their fame.

The DCPA’s new rock musical The 12 and the searing drama One Night in Miami have at least one surprising commonality: Both are fictional explorations of very real historical events and personalities.

While The 12 imagines what might have happened between the disciples in the three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, One Night in Miami imagines the conversation between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in the hours immediately after Clay shocked Sonny Liston — and the world — to win the world heavyweight boxing championship. The next morning, Clay announced his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and the changing of his name to Muhammad Ali.

Director Carl Cofield with 'One Night in Miami' playwright Kemp Powers on opening night in Denver. Photo by John Moore. For longtime journalist and first-time playwright Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami was a liberating creative writing opportunity. But it took him some time to resolve the journalist’s need for absolute accuracy with the playwright’s charge to invent a compelling theatrical drama.

“If you had asked me who my four favorite people in the world were, I would have said those four,” Powers said. “So when I read in Mike Marqusee’s book Redemption Song that they were friends, I thought, ‘OK, I just accidentally discovered The Black Justice League.’ 

“The first draft was really rough because I had to get away from being such a huge fan of all four of them. I needed to bring these guys down to a human level.”

The play started to work, Powers said, only when he relieved himself of the responsibility of having to exactly and completely represent these four cultural giants.

“What I quickly learned is that we are now living in an age where, if a person wants to know anything about a famous person, all they have to do is Google them,” Powers said, “and that’s when I was able to let go of the educational and historical obligations I was feeling and focus completely on the story.”

That story is a small slice-of-life — just one with enormous historical implications. 

“I approached this meeting as a simple gathering of four good friends who respect each other but have some significant differences of opinion,” Powers said. “Four good friends who maybe didn’t expect to be in this room or to have anything to celebrate on this night. But the outcome of the fight changed everything.”

Kemp Powers QuoteStill, these are, irretrievably, real men. And audiences will come to the DCPA with preconceived notions of who they are, how they should look and how they should speak. One Night in Miami Director Carl Cofield considers Jim Brown “The black James Bond.” Cofield named his own son Cassius. As in Cassius Marcellus Clay, the 19th-Century abolitionist. The same man after whom Muhammad Ali’s father was named.

“That the young Cassius Clay (the boxer) was so rooted in his conviction was important to me,” Cofield said, “and the man he would go on to be. Even though he was young, he was wise, and he chose a path he believed in his heart was the path for him.”

Despite audience expectations, Powers said the play works best when the actors playing these four cultural icons don’t try to do mere imitations of them.

“You want people who can get to the truth of these men, as they are written in this script,” he said. “There are certain things that each actor will say that may make them very recognizable to the audience as these four specific men. But this isn’t a variety show with impersonations.”

In that case, then, how much does truth matter? It’s everything, Powers said.

“Even though this is a fictional conversation, all of the stories they talk about are real things that have happened to them,” he said. “The audience is going to come in knowing that Cassius Clay is going to become Muhammad Ali. They are coming in knowing that Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’

“But then again, if people come in feeling, ‘Well, I already know all there is to know about these guys,’ then my challenge becomes: What can I do to make it completely surprising despite all of that?”

Powers points to the character of Malcolm X, who is presented in the play in a way he doesn’t think anyone has ever seen before, he said.

“This isn’t The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” he said. “I try to paint a more nuanced version of him that comes from more modern readings on Malcolm X, including Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.”

Audiences also will come in knowing full well what happens after the play ends.

“We know that a year after this fight, things are never the same,” Cofield said. “We know that two of these four men are dead. Malcolm X is assassinated, and Sam Cooke is killed in mysterious circumstances outside a Los Angeles hotel in a convertible Ferrari with a bottle of whiskey and a Final Call newspaper, which is very, very telling, because that is the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam.”

But for all that is definitively known, what happened in that Miami hotel room in 1964 remains largely unknowable. “All that we know for certain is that the only food they had available to eat was vanilla ice cream,” Cofield said.

And so writing One Night in Miami as a play allowed Powers to write a story he never could have authoritatively pulled off as a journalist. And he’s glad for it.

“Having this be a fiction that is based on facts takes all of those journalistic constraints off of me and opens up an entirely new world,” Powers said. 

One Night in Miami production photos by Jennifer M. Koskinen:

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: Bringing four icons to the stage in Miami
Watch a video montage of scenes from the play
Fourth-graders have tough questions for One Night in Miami cast
Photos: One Night in Miami is getting ready to rumble
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

One Night in Miami ‘meet the cast’ videos:
Meet Colby Lewis
Meet Morocco Omari
Meet Nik Walker
Meet Jason Delane
Meet York Walker
Meet William Oliver Watkins