The Weight of History

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Imagine a hotel room filled with Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. To raise the stakes a bit, make it the night that Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston to become the Heavy Weight Champion. Oh, and for good measure, make it the night before he announces his connection to the Nation of Islam.

That's the gutsy and tantalizing setup for playwright Kemp Powers world premiere at Rogue Machine One Night in Miami. Based on a historical event, Mr. Powers imagines what these four icons might have chatted about behind closed doors.

Now history plays are tough and writing about icons is even tougher. The audience enters the theater with a certain familiarity. These aren't fictional creations - these are men we know - or at least think we do. As a playwright, you have not only the burden of drama but also the obligation of expectation and the weight of history. As actors, the challenge is equally daunting. How do walk the razor thin line between mere mimicry and caricature?

After you get over the revelation that these four men were not only friends but spent this historic night together, playwright Kemp Powers asks us to buy into a celebration that centers around a motel room and vanilla ice cream: no adoring fans, no ladies, no booze - save for Sam Cooke's flask. Just four guys hanging out. If you can buy into this conceit the play's got you.

It's a clever way of tackling history - deflate it - bring it down to human scale.

Mr. Powers does this from the opening lyrics Sam Cooke sings. The play opens with Sam Cooke, played by the remarkable Ty Jones, trying to work out the lyrics to "Put Me Down Easy." He sings, stumbles, swears. Begins again, swears. Then as the sound effect of an airplane flies overhead it all clicks "try and do me just the same as pilots do big aeroplanes put me down easy."

It's a sort of historical voyeurism. We get a hint into Jim Brown's burgeoning film career, we hear Malcolm X plan a trip to Mecca - you get the idea.

But that's only half of the play's project. The real heart of the piece is a contemplation of the artist's role in social change. Throughout the evening, Malcom X appeals to his three friends that they are future of Civil Rights. He comes down hardest on Sam Cooke. Why hasn't he used his voice to give voice to the struggle?

It's telling that Mr. Powers finds his greatest freedom and power writing for Malcolm X and Sam Cooke - two men who tragically will be dead within a year of this meeting. Freed from the weight of history both the playwright and audience can imagine what might have been.

The reason to see the play, like so much of Rogue Machine's work, is for the acting. The cast navigates our expectations and gives us enough of what we expect from these icons but more importantly has us laugh with them and maybe even shed a tear or two - all at human scale.

One Night in Miami… plays at Rogue Machine Theatre on Pico through August 18.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 Minutes without an intermission

Banner image: Ty Jones (as Sam Cooke), Jason Delane (Malcolm X), Matt Jones (Cassius Clay) and Kevin Daniels (Jim Brown) in Rogue Machine's One Night in Miami…. Photo: John Flynn