Los Angeles Theater Review: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… (Rogue Machine)

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by G. Bruce Smith on July 28, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE X FACTOR

How many times have we mused that we would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when ___________? That’s exactly what playwright Kemp Powers has done in his One Night in Miami…, the world premiere of which is currently on at Rogue Machine. Taking a real gathering of four black icons at a pivotal moment in America’s civil rights struggle, Powers posits what could have transpired in a Miami G. Bruce Smith’s Stage and Cinema review of Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami…” at Rogue Machine Theatre, Los Angelesmotel room in 1964. The result is a funny, powerful and spellbinding piece of theater that makes you hungry for a refresher course in history and on the four men who made it, each in his way.

It’s the evening of Feb. 25, 1964 at the Hampton House Motel & Villas. Cassius Clay – who would soon convert to Islam and would change his name to Muhammad Ali – has just scored a stunning upset by defeating Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. No big celebration has been planned, but the boxer’s friends – activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and star Cleveland running back Jim Brown – throw a party of sorts in the motel room (authentically created by scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz).

A hyped-up and youthful Clay (Matt Jones), already displaying his trademark charming swagger and use of superlatives, sets the tone of funny banter among the men as he gives a blow-by-blow of his victorious fight. Sharp-witted Cooke (Ty Jones) and big, bad Brown (Kevin Daniels) join the verbal sparring. Only Malcolm X (Jason Delane, with an eerie resemblance to the activist) remains more serious, G. Bruce Smith’s Stage and Cinema review of Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami…” at Rogue Machine Theatre, Los Angelesdisplaying what appears to be paranoia but would prove to be well-founded wariness of the Nation of Islam.

But the underlying tension between the men – particularly Cooke and Malcolm X – soon emerges as they debate their roles (or lack thereof) in the civil rights struggle. Is Malcolm X undermining the cause with his talk of “white devils?” Is Cooke a “wind-up toy” for his Caucasian audiences or a shrewd businessman whose power derives from his ability to make good money in a music industry controlled by whites? Is Islam the answer for a young boxer already feeling he might need “a little less swagger in my life and a little more direction?”

G. Bruce Smith’s Stage and Cinema review of Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami…” at Rogue Machine Theatre, Los AngelesAnd how do all of them – as successful as they all are or are about to become – use the anger that simmers just below the surface of each? These fascinating questions, particularly in the context of the mid-60s (a two-page timeline of significant events is included in the program as a handy frame of reference), resonate because we see these men – especially Cooke and Malcolm X – for what they are: humans with huge talent but also vulnerabilities, doubts and even regrets. Under the deft guidance of director Carl Cofield, who keeps the action moving swiftly, the actors embodying these icons bring to their stellar performances the nuances of great men grappling with big issues in deeply personal ways. That One Night in Miami… is Powers’ first play is a sign that this is a writer to be watched.

G. Bruce Smith’s Stage and Cinema review of Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami…” at Rogue Machine Theatre, Los Angeles

photos by John Flynn

One Night in Miami…
Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd.
scheduled to end on August 18, 2013
for tickets, call 855-585-5185 visit http://www.RogueMachineTheatre.com

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