Four Black Men Wrestle With America’s Question of Blackness

by: Roberto Alejandro Special to the AFRO
/ (Photo © Richard Anderson/Center Stage) /
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One Night in Miami: Jim Brown, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X confer, debate, fight about the question.

“It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gon’ come,” sings music legend Sam Cooke, played by Grasan Kingsberry, at one point during One Night in Miami. This is a play that bends Cooke’s hopeful assertion into a poignant question about the optimism present in that famous phrase.

One Night in Miami, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and currently playing at Center Stage, finds Cooke, freshly anointed heavy weight champion Muhammad Ali (still Cassius Clay), civil rights icon Malcolm X, and NFL legend Jim Brown wrestling with the responsibilities that often adhere to Blackness in a racist context. Following Ali’s first defeat of Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title on Feb. 25, 1964, the four men gather in a hotel room in Miami to celebrate Ali’s victory and wind up having a discussion about what it means to be fully engaged in the struggle for Black progress.

Is it necessary to be the fully committed, impassioned preacher that is X, addressing racism with no holds barred rhetoric? Is it enough to be outspoken like Brown? Is a more silent effort, like Cooke’s economic self-sufficiency and success in a White-dominated business, a victory or an abdication of responsibility?

“It’s brothers like [Cooke], you, and Cassius, you all are our greatest weapons,” says X, played by Tory Andrus, to Brown.

“We’re not anybody’s weapons Malcolm, we’re men,” replies Brown, played by Esau Pritchett.

The play explores this tension while touching on a number of historical events from the era: Ali’s conversion to Islam; the British invasion of American pop culture by groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones; Jim Brown’s transition from football to acting and his first film, Rio Concho; the assassination of President John Kennedy and X’s being silenced by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad after he referred to the slaying as ‘the chickens coming home to roost;’ X working with Alex Haley on his autobiography; X’s pilgrimage to Mecca, which had a profound effect on the minister prior to his death in 1965; and Sam Cooke’s composition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’

The play avoids any monolithic interpretations of the relationship of these men to the question of ‘Blackness.’ Each character brings a unique perspective to the issue, informed by their unique experiences.

At the same time, each perspective shared is itself a wrestling. All of these men have clearly spent a lot time thinking about their role and responsibility in America’s racial dynamic, and their views are not so much conclusions as they are a window into where each character finds himself as he continues to weigh the problem and his proper response to it.

The continuing nature of the problem – seemingly perpetual in America – is the current that runs throughout the play, culminating in the powerful final moment (spoiler alert) which juxtaposes Cooke’s famous chorus from ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, released in 1964, with images of Black men (and boys) like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, killed extra-judiciously in recent memory.

Do we still know that a change is going to come? The inescapable experience of race has clearly shaped the lives and views of the men in the play, forcing them to constantly orient themselves towards the question of Blackness. Has America wrestled with the problem the way these men were forced to do?

These are some of the questions explored in One Night in Miami.

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