By Lisa Kennedy - Denver Post Theater Critic
Courtesy of denverpost.com
It is one of the most beautiful and mournful montages committed to celluloid.
Cast members from the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of "One Night in Miami": clockwise, from top, Colby Lewis as Cassius Clay; Morocco Omari as Jim Brown; and Nik Walker as Sam Cooke. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
Denzel Washington's Malcolm X is behind the wheel of his car. A driver ferries wife Betty Shabazz and their girls in another vehicle. Assassins ride in determined silence in two other cars. All are headed to Harlem's Audubon Ballroom as the first stringed notes to Sam Cooke's transcendent civil rights ballad "A Change Is Gonna Come" swell.
I was born by the river...
Spike Lee brilliantly reunited Malcolm and Cooke on screen for "Malcolm X."
But a year before Malcolm X's murder in 1965, the two had actually been in the same hotel room in Miami. Along with football great Jim Brown, they spent the evening with their friend — and in many ways, each man's student — Cassius Clay, who'd just defeated reigning heavyweight champ Sonny Liston.
The next morning, the mouthy, magnificent, 22-year-old boxer would announce to the press his new name: Muhammad Ali.
Sounds apocryphal. Sounds like a wild thought experiment, a "who-would-you-take to a desert island?" parlor game.
Yes, it's hard to believe, even for the actors and director charged with making that night so very real in "One Night in Miami." Kemp Powers' swift and agile, bruising and embracing work is playing at the Denver Center's Space Theatre through April 19.
"As a black man studying history, I knew these four icons, or thought I did," says director Carl Cofield, who shepherded the Los Angeles world premiere in 2013.
"I think that's the beauty of what Kemp created. Everyone will come into the theater with a preconceived notion of who these men are. When you spend 90 minutes with them, my aim, my hope, is that you leave with a holistic view of these men. It forces you to reinvestigate who you thought they were."
One afternoon in Denver, Cofield and his six actors gather.
Present are Colby Lewis (Clay/Ali), Jason Delane (Malcolm X), Morocco Omari (Brown) and Nik Walker (Cooke).
Adding to the iconic quartet are York Walker and William Oliver Watkins as Nation of Islam bodyguards Jamal and Kareem.
They are a handsome bunch, a thoughtful and teasing brotherhood. Not unlike the play"s Hampton House motel room, the meeting room in the Denver Center's administration building is infused with a camaraderie, both playful and deeply serious.
After all, Clay's imminent name change set his friends on a sparring, cajoling, philosophical course with Malcolm X on one side, Cooke on the other and Brown often in the unusual role of ref.
And art is not created in a vacuum. More to the point, it does not arrive to one. "Some of the scabs of the racial tension in America were starting to get pulled off" when "One Night in Miami" had its world premiere, "some of the scabs of the racial tension in America were starting to get pulled off," notes Cofield.
"Trayvon's murder," interjects Delane, who originated the role of Malcolm X in the L.A. production.
"There are parts of this play that resonate with that," continues Cofield. And resonate with Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and on and terribly on.
"I was in New York and did the march," says York Walker. "Now what?" he remembers thinking afterward. "What can I do as a broke, struggling artist? It's been amazing that everything has worked for me to be in this cast, at this time, working on this piece. So I can do what I do as an artist — what I've trained to do. Oh, this is what I do: I use my voice to make this character real. It's nice to know people are going to see this show and ask themselves what are they going to do."
Still, the draw for these actors wasn't that "One Night in Miami" was a polemic (it isn't) but that it is also an insightful portrait of friendship.
"What we've been talking about throughout the rehearsal process is the notion of public-versus-the-private," Delane says. "That these men, these iconic individuals, were indeed friends."
Omari shared with Lewis that an imam he knew had once said of Ali that he was "good peoples."
"Coming from the South, I know what that means," says Lewis, who must reintroduce us to the boxing legend. "You good peoples? You regular peoples? I can internalize that for his private moments, when he's with his friends, not these icons," says Lewis, who's from North Carolina.
"The beauty of this process is being able to play with that. Who are they behind closed doors? Sam has this line: 'The cameras are off.' And I repeat it back to him. This is not 'For Sentimental Reasons.' This is not the Super Bowl. This is not the heavy-weight championship. This is not behind the pulpit," Lewis says.
"A thing I love about this play is these six characters listen. Because that's what we don't do now," adds Nik Walker, who plays Sam Cooke. "Everything we have — Facebook, Twitter — it's all about getting on a podium and stating 'I think this.' These brothers are saying 'What's going on with you? Let me hear you. And even it I don't agree with it, I'm going to listen.' "
Even so, there will be bickering. There will be wounded fury amid some dark — as well as randy — laughs. There will also be some soulful singing.
A year later, two of the four men in that hotel room would be dead. Cooke was shot by a hotel proprietor in Los Angeles in December 1964. (The Cooke estate recently OK'd a biopic.)
As for Malcolm X?
"At this time Malcolm's been silenced by the Nation," says Delane. And he would soon leave Elijah Muhammad's Black Muslim organization. "He had to have known if he chose to leave the Nation, it was a death wish, or, at least, an outcome that might not end positively. The weight of that decision-making process had to have affected him privately," says his portrayer.
It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon' come, oh yes it will
"At what cost do we make our decisions?" is a question all the characters tussle with, says Delane. It's a heavyweight consideration the play's director and cast hope we'll all take on.
"ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI"
Written by Kemp Powers. Directed by Carl Cofield. Featuring Colby Lewis, Jason Delane, Morocco Omari, Nik Walker, York Walker and William Oliver Watkins. Through April 19. 90 minutes. At the Space Theatre in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis streets. Tickets $41-$58 via denvercenter.org or 303-893-4100.