By Lisa Kennedy - Denver Post Theater Critic
Courtesy of denverpost.com
Clockwise from top right, Jason Delane, Morocco Omari, Nik Walker and Colby Lewis, in "One Night in Miami," at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
(Jennifer Koskinen, Denver Center Theatre Company)
"Beware the underdog" might have been the warning on the February night in 1964 when a 22-year-old chatterboxer from Louisville, Ky., shamed the reigning heavyweight champion at Miami's convention center.
Even so, the bout between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston is not the main event in "One Night in Miami," at the Space Theater through April 19.
Nope. Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X. In this corner, R&B singer-songwriter and record company impresario Sam Cooke.
Based on an actual gathering of titans, Kemp Powers' haymaker of a play finds just-crowned Clay (Colby Lewis) in a hotel room with three friends. Three mentors, really: Malcolm X, Cooke and legendary NFL running back Jim Brown.
Nik Walker delivers a haunting performance as Sam Cooke in the Denver Center production of Kemp Powers' "One Night in Miami." (Jennifer M Koskinen)
In this swift, smartly imagined play, at least three of the men thought they were in for a night of hard celebration. Brother Malcolm (Jason Delane) has other plans.
The members of this ensemble are deeply attuned to one another, and director Carl Cofield keeps them moving in potent relationship.
The evening quickly becomes an ideological sparring match with Cooke (Nik Walker) and Malcolm at odds. Brown (Morocco Omari) and Clay often act as unlikely referees.
Accompanying the drama's quartet are two Nation of Islam body guards: eager Brother Jamal (York Walker) and stern Brother Kareem (William Oliver Watkins).
The action takes place the night before Clay is set to announce he's joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Yet the man who has been his spiritual guide is on the outs with the Black Muslim organization. Why are the those Nation of Islam sentinels there again?
As a very lucky fly on a wall, the audience bears witness to a communal debate about race, religion, economic empowerment and more. If that sounds heavy, it can be, should be.
Fear not. There are plenty of fond feints, playful jabs and homespun humor. Some of the lines are R-rated raw.
Still, it's the searing instances of hurt and doubt, hope and bravado that stick.
A transcendent moment comes when Walker sings "Somebody Have Mercy On Me." I won't spoil it for you, though the scene's seductive staging begs for description. Let's just say that afterward, you may see stars. It's that much of a knockout in an often-stunning play.
"ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI" Written by Kemp Powers. Directed by Carl Cofield. Featuring Jason Delane, Colby Lewis, 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.