Everyone that has a soul has the ability to have that soul touched and moved. Whether you’re black or white, into music or sports, are religious or not, Centerstage is bringing a soul-gripping performance that crackles with spirit and blazes a path straight to the heart as they present the regional premier of Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami. Directed by Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, this powerful and provocative play of the soul brings four legendary men together under one roof for one night to witness the struggles of their careers, their lives, their beliefs, and their identities. A truly earnest evening of moving and thought-provoking entertainment; One Night in Miami fills you with the heat of life.
Such a powerful play with immensely talented performers requires an equally striking set to match the caliber of overall production quality. Set Designer Brenda Davis sets to task to recreate the Hampton House Hotel in Miami, Florida in February of 1964. Davis’ design not only displays the interior but fuses the edges of the stage area to reflect the exterior as well, including palm trees and the neon glow of the hotel’s sign. The interior is crisp; simply furnished with patterns and furnishings appropriate for 1964, with a hint of up-scale class.
Davis works closely with Projection Designer Alex Koch to draw the audience into the era of the performance. A digital frame is wrapped around the set and displays video captured images of live events from the time at strategically affixed moments throughout the performance. Koch also uses the visual projections to make a thematic correlation between the civil rights struggle of the 60’s and the progression, or lack thereof, that has been made in present day. This jarring series of images at the end reminds theatergoers of the current civil and political climate and forces introspective reflection in relation to the show just witnessed.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah utilizes the space to its maximum potential with this talented quartet of actors. The action of the performance happens through dialogue and Kwei-Armah’s keen ability to manipulate the passage of time on the stage leaves the arguments feeling realistic with the notion of real-time passing by without the drudgery of time actually passing. The exchanges are tight, the blocking is precise, and the working chemistry formulated between these four principle players is honest. Kwei-Armah’s direction allows for the powerful messages of struggle, identity, personal beliefs, and civil strife to shine through in gloriously executed moments of raw tension.
While the production focuses primarily around the quartet of public celebrities that celebrate victory in a hotel room, there are two security “soldiers” featured in the production worth mentioning. Kareem (Royce Johnson) and Jamal (Genesis Oliver) are only encountered briefly but their fully developed character portrayals are worth a nod of approval. Johnson is the more stoic of the two while Oliver is the more eager and inexperienced. His naivette leads to jumpier perkier modes of enthusiasm that create momentary laughter during his fanatic encounter with those inside the hotel room.
Jim Brown (Esau Pritchett) ends up being the comic relief in a situation whose gravity is dense and immense. Pritchett lets the comic zingers zip naturally from his lips without forcing the humor into his lines. His enormous stature falls in line with the historical notion of the character and he embodies this concept to the fullest on stage. There is something unsettling about his ferocity that lives up to the hype of his character as well. Pritchett carefully balances honest sincerity against the waxing narrative of his only reflective story told in the piece and delivers a stunning moment when recalling his visit to home. It’s the off-kilter comments that add a laugh to diffuse tension in the most earnest fashion from Pritchett that keep his character lively and inviting.
Pritchett plays exceptionally well with the other three performers; a fully functioning fraternal bond tied true with friendship and camaraderie flows between the Jim Brown character and Malcolm X (Tory Andrus), Cassius Clay (Sullivan Jones) and Same Cooke (Grasan Kingsberry.) These four performers each have their own unique way of expressing the tensions of strife— be it the civil rights struggle, personal identity crisis, dilemmas of faith— in a remarkable and honest fashion that resonates through the audience.
Jones, as the newly-crowned heavyweight champion of the world, delivers a thrilling stage presence. His floating swift steps and perpetual energetic motion keep him hopping and animated. Whether it’s the speed at which he speaks, or the re-enactment of the fight he’s just won, Jones’ character is frenetically charge and keeps moving with a high sparking energy throughout the performance. When he settles into the more serious subjects of the evening, Jones internalizes that energy and transforms it into emotional expressions that diffuse themselves into his spoken word and precisely delivered silences.
Andrus, as Malcolm X, and Kingsberry, as the legendary Sam Cooke, take turns butting heads and coming to blows with one another throughout. Andrus’ stalwart stoicism grounds his character in his motivations for the cause while Kingsberry’s liberated disposition has his character and ideology floating along like an easy breeze. Kingsberry burns the house down when he starts his soul-revival singing; a sincere and soulful voice permeating even the thickest of tensions that the show creates. Watch his “sister-flute” dance for a moment of thrilling hilarity as he throws his all into the physicality of this scene.
Kingsberry shifts gears when singing his more haunting and harrowing solo toward the end of the performance; a moment that draws his character and Andrus’ character to a mutual understanding. This, like so many moments throughout the production, is striking and deeply stirring on an emotional and spiritual level regardless of your personal beliefs. The show is inspiring and electrified with the passion of these four performers and the characters they represent. It’s only a night and all the things that can happen in just one night are sure to move your heart and shake up your mind; it would be a shame to miss this limited engagement run.
Running Time: Approximately90 minutes no intermission
One Night in Miami plays through February 8, 2015 in The Pearlstone Theatre at Centerstage— 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 332-0033 or purchase them online.