'Miami' playwright: 'It feels a lot like 1964 right now'

One Night in Miami quote

The morning after Cassius Clay shocked Sonny Liston — and the world — to win the world heavyweight boxing title in 1964, the brash 22-year-old announced he was changing his name to Muhammad Ali and pledging his allegiance to the Nation of Islam.

To understand the resulting shock in today’s terms: Just imagine if LeBron James, the most popular basketball player in the world, announced he was going off to fight for Al-Qaeda.

“It was that mind-bending, upending and sensational,” said Carl Cofield, director of the DCPA Theatre Company’s critically acclaimed staging of Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami.

The Nation of Islam was never a terrorist organization, but this was more a matter of public perception. The Nation was thought to be a hate group. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had declared it Public Enemy No. 1. The very name terrified Americans then, Cofield said, the way Isis terrifies them today.

“I think it is an apt comparison,” added Powers, the playwright. “The Nation of Islam never burned crosses or murdered anyone like the Ku Klux Klan. But it was in Hoover’s best interest to get the perception out there that these were the kind of people who would come for your kids.”

Several weeks before the fight, which Sports Illustrated later named the fourth-greatest sports moment of the 20th century, the Miami Herald published an article quoting Cassius Clay Sr. saying his son had joined the Black Muslims four years earlier, back when he was 18. “Muslims tell my boys to hate white people; to hate women; to hate their mother,” Clay’s father told the newspaper. The ensuing uproar was so intense, fight promoters threatened to cancel the bout unless Clay publicly disavowed the Nation of Islam. He refused. The fight went on only after Malcolm X, Clay’s friend and incendiary spokesman, agreed to leave town (although he returned the night of the fight).

Immediately after Clay dispatched Liston in a mere seven rounds, the new champ bypassed the post-fight celebration and instead retreated to a Miami hotel room with Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. All that’s known of what happened next between four of the most iconic figures of the 1960s is that they only had vanilla ice cream to eat.

One Night in Miami quote“What we definitely know is that the next morning, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali,” said Cofield, the play’s director. Powers, a longtime journalist and first-time playwright, wrote One Night in Miami two years ago to imagine what might have transpired in that room — a fictional flight of fancy with a very real historical context.

While One Night in Miami is set five decades ago to many African-Americans, Powers said, “It feels a lot like 1964 right now.

“One of the things that inspired me to write the play is that some of the issues the characters are dealing with are, sadly, still very much contemporary issues,” Powers said. “As I was writing it, I realized that all of the characters have modern contemporaries. So I do want people to see the modern parallel.”

But Powers was not expecting One Night in Miami, which had its premiere in Los Angeles last year, to become this timely: Trayvon Martin. Ferguson. Eric Garner. Retaliatory cop shootings. At the cineplex, Selma graphically laid bare the atrocities that surrounded the conspiracy to deny African-Americans the right to vote in 1964.

“The second week after the play opened in L.A., the Trayvon Martin- George Zimmerman thing happened,” said Powers. When the play opened a few months ago in Baltimore, he added, “People assumed I wrote it in response to Ferguson.

“I hate to say it, but as far as race in America goes, it seems as if there has been a bit of a regression. I just think there are harder lines between different groups right now.”

One of the primary, and still red-hot issues in the play, he added, is the social responsibility of the black artist.

“Malcolm X thought Sam Cooke could have pushed the envelope to get people more fired up and agitated,” Powers said. “Malcolm X’s oratorical style was very much in-your-face and it propelled you to action; Sam’s style was more to let you discover the meaning of a song on your own, like an art piece..”

Just as Powers finished One Night in Miami, singer Harry Belafonte instigated a public sparring match with the rapper Jay-Z. Belafonte claimed current pop superstars “have turned their back on social responsibility.” He said that simply being a rich black man in the world is not enough.

“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that is quite literally the whole question of social versus business responsibility, and which one determines black success,’ ” Powers said.

“I knew this play was going to be contemporary. But I had no idea it was going to be this nail-on-the-head contemporary.”

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.

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:
How Miami playwright accidentally discovered The Black Justice League
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