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Oh, What a Night PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
October 2018

A boxer, singer, athlete, and minister meet at Hampton House

CArtFeature_1assius Clay really shouldn’t have been in the boxing ring with Sonny Liston back in February 1964 in Miami Beach.

Liston was the world heavyweight champion, considered one of the most formidable boxers of all time. Clay, “the Louisville Lip,” was thought to be mostly trash talk and sweet moves.

The match attracted worldwide attention, and some would say the fight entered the annals of history as one of the top sporting events of the 20th century.

The 22-year-old Clay won.

There are many stories of Clay training on Miami Beach and having to cross the causeway at night because Miami Beach, a segregated and unwelcoming city for blacks, had no hotels for African Americans.

But this night turned out be special, and not just because of Clay’s victory. He left Miami Beach to join some companions at the jumping Hampton House motel and music venue in Brownsville; those companions were Malcolm X, the R&B singer Sam Cooke, and the football great Jim Brown.

No one knows exactly what was discussed, but not long after, Cassius Clay would change his name to Cassius X (he’d quietly joined the Nation of Islam earlier). Also that year, Cooke would release “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which would become an anthem of the civil rights era. Brown was becoming known off the football field as a champion for black equality and justice. Along with Malcolm X, all four men would be known forever in the ring of social activism.

It’s a story that playwright (and television writer) Kemp Powers could not resist, and he debuted the one-act One Night in Miami in Los Angeles in 2013.

ArtFeature_2Michel Hausmann, the artistic director of Miami New Drama, one of our region’s newest theater companies, knew this was the play to open his second full season with at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre, where New Drama is the resident company. The Colony also sits only blocks from the site of the 1964 fight.

To add to the historical significance, the October 4 kickoff will be at the newly restored Hampton House.

Miami native Carl Cofield, part of the inaugural class of the New World School of the Arts and graduate of University of Miami, is the play’s director. He also directed the play’s world première in L.A. and is currently the associate artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem.

Kieron J. Anthony, the actor playing Cassius Clay, also has Miami roots; he was a sprinter in his native Trinidad and Tobago before coming to run for University of Miami, where he studied biology. Today he’s a full-time actor and teacher.

Esau Pritchett, as Jim Brown, is well known for his television appearances, including roles in Orange Is the New Black and Chicago PD. Leon Thomas, who plays Sam Cooke, is a singer and actor with Broadway credits in The Lion King and The Color Purple, among others, and starred on TV’s Victorious alongside Ariana Grande.

It’s a high-powered cast, says Hausmann, worthy of continuing the story that still does not have an ending. “These are issues that are still national and local,” he says. While Miami Beach is no longer officially segregated, “today we have Colin Kaepernick,” the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who took a knee during the national anthem and sparked another sports-led activist movement.

“The conversation is not yet finished; these issues are still not in the open -- this is the type of play that can continue the dialogue,” he says.

ArtFeature_3No one knows for sure what the four talked about that evening almost 55 years ago, so Kemp Powers took what he calls some poetic license in shaping what happened. Because we do know what transpired next, as Cassius X turned into Muhammad Ali and then into one of the most famous Americans of all time.

Malcolm X would break away from both the Nation of Islam and Martin Luther King’s strict adherence to nonviolence to become a charismatic leader. He was assassinated in 1965.

And the soul classics of Cooke, including “A Change Is Gonna Come,” would enter the pages of the Great American Songbook (he too was killed, in late 1964).

There is no band or piped-in soundtrack for One Night in Miami, according Hausmann, although Leon Thomas picks up a guitar periodically and strums songs of Cooke.

The sets, including the exterior and interior, are reproductions of what Hampton House looked like in the early 1960s. And it wasn’t just this night in February 1964, that made history at the motel. Martin Luther King Jr. was known to prefer a particular room when he was in town -- and took a liking to the pool. Jackie Robinson would camp there during his stints in Miami for golf, and Sammie Davis Jr. would frequent the place. Muhammad Ali was a regular there, and the motel was known the social hot spot for African Americans in the South.

But like the neighborhood around it, Hampton House, at 4240 NW 27th Ave., fell onto hard times. By the 1980s and 1990s, celebrity patrons gave way to the homeless and addicts, and the motel was slated for demolition. It was given a reprieve with community and government support, and in 2001 the Save the Hampton House Project was born; the structure was designated a historic site and granted nonprofit status. Restoration is still under way for some of the motel rooms, but a beautiful new lobby and music hall have been resurrected.

Maybe most important, jazz and blues evenings have been reinstituted; this summer Jesse Jones Jr. and Melton Mustafa were featured performers, and later in October, the Aldo Salvent Quartet is scheduled to host an evening of John Coltrane’s music. For those familiar with the local music scene, this might come as a surprise -- these nights are packed.

Back at the Colony Theatre, after opening One Night in Miami in later October, Hausmann and New Drama plan to unveil a commissioned new play in March based on the film Cocaine Cowboys, an infamous tale of Miami in the 1980s.

“This is us,” says Hausmann of what he wants New Drama to convey to Miami. “We want to be a voice of Miami, of its diversity, and what makes it unique.” He also wants to develop a nontraditional playgoing audience, “a new constituency that wants to come hear these stories.”

 

One Night in Miami” opens October 27 at the Colony Theatre; miaminewdrama.org.



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