Before a word is spoken, the Center Stage production of "One Night in Miami," Kemp Powers' play about the aftermath of Cassius Clay's world heavyweight boxing victory on Feb. 25, 1964, delivers a potent jab to the chin.
It comes from the sight of the set, which doesn't just re-create the hotel where Clay, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, music genius Sam Cooke and football great and budding film actor Jim Brown gathered after the upset victory over Sonny Liston.
Beneath the modestly appointed room where the action unfolds is another layer, a kind of jagged, forbidding basement, where you can just make out such signs as "We Serve Colored, Take Out Only." With this startling touch, scenic designer Brenda Davis creates a visual metaphor for the far-from-solid world inhabited by Clay and his friends in that pivotal year of the civil rights movement.
There's more. Vintage photos and movie clips flitter on a large fringed curtain that frames the stage, each image carrying you a little more deeply into the past (projections designed by Alex Koch).
It may sound too obvious or predictable in the telling, but the experience is anything but commonplace. And, again, this is all pre-performance. Once the action begins, the sense of time and place becomes even more immediate, more real, as the inspired fact-fiction fusion — and this superbly acted and directed staging — puts you into the hearts and minds of four legendary men.
Powers conjures up each personality in uncanny fashion, and, even more importantly, uses that evocation to address a whole range of difficult issues about race, and not just the obvious; the touchy subject of how skin color gradations are judged within the African-American culture gets its due as well.
There is plenty of talk, too, about relationships, honor, honesty, ideals. That the playwright does so without ever turning preachy — OK, the Malcolm X character can't help from speechifying, but that's just his way — is all the more impressive. There may be a few lines and situations in "One Night in Miami" that come off as contrived, but there's an overriding ring of truth.
The best-known part of that historic Miami night, other than the Liston defeat, is what happened the next day. That's when Clay, having long been mentored by Malcolm X, publicly embraced the Muslim faith and took the name Muhammad Ali.
What Powers does so skillfully is remind us of how those two men got to that point in their lives, how they were both beginning to test new, fateful waters. The playwright also fills in remarkable details about the others, immersing us quickly into the tension and affection that bonded the four friends.
Because we know what will happen to all of them — the violent deaths of Cooke in December 1964 and Malcolm X two months later haunt the fabric of the play — "One Night in Miami" works as a kind of multidirectional time machine.
In less than 90 minutes, a long, difficult chapter of American history seems to sweep by. The mind keeps flashing back and forward, even as the play grips us with the immediacy of the hotel room, where the buddies alternate between playfulness, rumination and, fully aware of the irony, eating the only food in the room — vanilla ice cream.
Center Stage has gone all out for the play's East Coast premiere. It is hard to imagine a more effective cast could have been assembled.
Sullivan Jones, who created the role of Clay in the 2013 world premiere in Los Angeles, is — duck, here comes the cliche — a knockout. His verbal sparring and physical grace are note-perfect. So is the way he conveys the fighter's sheer self-delight, as when he catches sight of himself in a mirror and wonders, "Oh, my God, why am I so pretty?"
Jones is just as adept at conveying Clay's gradual admission of doubt about where he is heading. It's a striking moment in a play full of them.
Tory Andrus easily communicates the resolve and vulnerability of Malcolm X, who demands that everyone take a stand in the struggle for rights and dignity.
As Brown, the one man in the room with a college degree, Esau Pritchett is a terrific presence, and not just physically. You feel the man's pride at every turn, and his simple way of cutting through to the truth.
Pritchett is nowhere more impressive than in the scene when Brown puts everything into stark perspective with a story about going home to Georgia as a hero, and just how far that adulation could take him.
Cooke is something of a lightning rod in the play, goading at will and reminding the others that "Most people want a piece of the pie; I want the recipe." The role is brilliantly realized by Grasan Kingsberry, right down to the singing, which is deftly used in the play for exhilaration (there's an unexpected, up-close mini-concert) and, near the end, for subtle, profound impact.
All four actors interact effortlessly, as if, like the characters, lifelong friends. And they make the most of the work's abundant humor, often perfectly placed to take the edge off confrontational moments.
Supporting roles of two Nation of Islam members keeping watch outside the hotel room are impressively fulfilled by Royce Johnson as Kareem, the super-serious one; Genesis Oliver as Jamaal, the disarmingly unbridled one.
The cast gets a steady, sturdy boost from director Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose eye for detail and ear for nuance help to make the entire play feel spontaneous. His sense of momentum allows each emotional peak to be climbed to compelling effect. Finely designed costumes (Clint Ramos) and lighting (Colin D. Young) add much to the production's authentic flavor.
An extra punch has been added, visually, to the last seconds of the play. A little heavy-handed, perhaps, but the sting is worth it. Great theater hits you hard and in many places. That's exactly what you get from the powers of this play and its realization at Center Stage — great theater.
If you go
"One Night in Miami" 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.