On Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight boxing title in the seventh round — a technical knockout — defying the conventional wisdom that Sonny Liston would easily prevail in the ring.
Clay did not go out on the town to celebrate, but chose instead to hang out with three high-profile friends in a hotel room: Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, singer-songwriter and record producer Sam Cooke, and Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown.
That Clay would announce his allegiance to the Nation of Islam the next day — he would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali — makes the night before all the more intriguing.
Among those who have wondered what went on back then is playwright Kemp Powers, whose fascination with those four men and that time they spent together led to "One Night in Miami," which is receiving its East Coast premiere at Center Stage starting Wednesday.
"If you asked me in my early 20s who I most admired, it would have been Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X," says New York-born, Los Angeles-based Powers, 41. "They have always been meaningful to me. When I found out my four favorite guys were friends, it blew my mind."
Powers is perhaps best known for his compelling 2004 book "The Shooting: A Memoir," which recounts how he accidentally shot and killed his best friend when he was 14, and the lifelong effect of that incident. He worked as a journalist for two decades, writing for Forbes, Reuters and others.
But Powers has also been involved with theater, in one way or another, for years, including administrative jobs at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
"August Wilson came to the Guthrie," he says "Arthur Miller came. I felt I could never do what they did. I never in a million years would have imagined I would be writing plays that would get performed."
"One Night in Miami" is Powers' first full-length one. To create it, he sifted through historical records of the period, seeking the right way to bring four personal heroes to life on the stage.
Two of the four died not long after that night in Miami. Cooke was fatally shot by a motel owner in December 1964; the circumstances of his death have been debated ever since. Malcolm X, who broke from the Nation of Islam in March 1964, was assassinated 11 months later by three members of that organization.
In preparing his play, Powers did not seek out Ali, who has Parkinson's disease (he was hospitalized late last week with a severe urinary tract infection, released on Friday and turned 73 on Saturday), or 78-year-old Brown, who is a special adviser to the Browns and has acted in films such as "Any Given Sunday" and "Mars Attacks!"
"Meeting or getting to know your idols can be dangerous," Powers says. "So much of what I struggled to do with this play was to demystify these four men, [but] the first person I had to demystify these men to was me. My first draft was very rough because it really stuck too closely to the idols I knew and loved."
That first draft was also so long that, Powers says, even he didn't want to stay to the end when it had its first reading. The final version of the play is one act, lasts about 90 minutes and unfolds in real time.
"I had to decide: What is the story I want to tell? I ended up taking a step back and letting go of all the iconography," Powers says. "The play didn't really start to work until I took everything I knew about these men publicly then simply let it go. and tried to imagine how these pressures and strains would impact each of them in private."
Books and articles about Feb. 25, 1964, provided a certain amount of historical flavor — a good deal of vanilla ice cream was consumed by the men in the hotel room, for example — and Powers incorporated some of that.
"But ultimately, I wanted to create a completely original plot, and conflict, that reflected what happened before and after that eventful night," the playwright says. "When the door closes and the cameras go off, how do I think these four guys would behave? I try to bring them down to a very relatable human level. It's not four guys giving speeches about who they are. It's just four icons being a bunch of dudes."
Powers had a ready venue when it came to putting those dudes in the spotlight. He is resident playwright at the Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles, where "One Night in Miami" premiered in 2013.
As the L.A. production neared, a Center Stage board member caught word of the new work and suggested that the company's artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, check out the script. Some cast members of that first staging and people Kwei-Armah knew in L.A. also suggested that the piece would be good for Center Stage.
"I started reading the play on a Saturday morning and was three-quarters of the way through when I decided I need to see it in front of an audience," Kwei-Armah says. "I was in Los Angeles the next day in time for the Sunday matinee."
The quick trip paid off.
"I spent much of the time staring at the audience during the performance," Kwei-Armah says. "In front of me were Muhammad Ali's daughters, so I was listening to them a lot. I saw the audience become really taken with the play. I think Kemp showed tremendous flair — and courage, even — to put these four icons in a room. And he made me feel I was in the hotel room with them."
The L.A. premiere received considerable acclaim in the press and won several awards. Close on the heels of the Center Stage production will be a staging by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company in March.
The play's evocation of a pivotal year — the Civil Rights Act would be enacted five months after that night in Miami — can speak to those who have firsthand memories of that era or, like Powers, who were born later. Ali and his friends continue to symbolize the struggle for civil rights, community and personal development.
"I was very much focused on the world of the '60s, but the play ends up feeling very contemporary," Powers says. "It's kind of sad that a lot of the issues these guys were dealing with are still here."
The playwright, who views those four men as "the beginning of the Black Power movement," points to the way Malcolm X "found redemption" after being imprisoned in the 1940s for larceny and other crimes; and the way that Jim Brown wasn't just "the best football player who ever lived," but also co-founded the Black Economic Union.
"Jim was fearless," Powers says. "He still tells it like it is. And Sam Cooke wanted to make sure he had the masters to all of his music at a time when many musicians had no control over their work. He has always been my favorite artist. His journey is one of the central plot points."
Ali, who had already stirred controversy because of his tactics and distinctive brand of self-confidence, set off more debate when he converted to Islam.
"A lot of people don't realize the extreme nature of what he did when," Powers says. "It's the equivalent of what it would be like if LeBron James or any popular athlete today announced he was in ISIS. That's how much the Nation of Islam was feared. And when Ali refused to be inducted [as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War in 1967], he really put himself out there."
Powers is aware that Ali or the others may still be regarded as polarizing in some quarters all these decades later.
"You may hate them going in and may hate them going out," Powers says, "but my hope is that by the end of the play, people will have an understanding of why they are so inspirational to so many of us."
If you go
"One Night in Miami," currently in previews, opens Wednesday and runs through Feb. 8 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $59. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.