RENE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about a play on stage here in Los Angeles, though it's set in another hot city, it's called "One Night In Miami," and it's based on a real event. On February 25th, 1964, the young Cassius Clay defeated world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Clay, who would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali, celebrated his victory in a small hotel room with three of the most prominent African-Americans of the time.
That's what happened. This new play imagines what might have gone down among the four that night at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Here's Iris Mann.
IRIS MANN, BYLINE: No one expected Cassius Clay to beat Sonny Liston, so it seems no victory party was planned, says playwright Kemp Powers.
KEMP POWERS: So he went back to the Hampton House hotel in the black section of Miami called the Overtown, to Malcolm X's motel room and the only other people with him there that night were Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and a couple of other nation of Islam ministers. So the idea that these four incredible men were together for a night in a room and no one had ever kind of delved into it, it seemed like a wonderful idea to explore in a work of fiction.
MANN: While the gathering really happened, Powers invented all of the dialogue, including Clay's reliving of the moment he won.
MATT JONES: (As Cassius Clay) Charles, Sonny Liston, would not leave his corner to start the round and Cassius Marcellus Clay is the new heavyweight champion of the world and I don't even have a scratch on my face. Oh, my god.Why am I so pretty?
MANN: The playwright's invention is based on extensive research, watching documentaries and news footage.
MUHAMMAD ALI: I am the king of the world. I'm pretty...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hold it, hold it, hold it. You're not that pretty.
MANN: As well as reading biographies and statements by the four men. Then, Powers says, he had to get beyond the public personas.
POWERS: Each of them has taken on such an iconic status. Now the whole point of tackling this in this play was, as opposed to having them stand around and make speeches, let's try to strip away some of the iconography and make them more human.
MANN: Still, it was hard for the actors to get past the icons. Jason Delane plays Malcolm X.
JASON DELANE: When I first got the script, I was thrilled. And I got the audition and I was thrilled. And I got the callback and I was thrilled. And then I got the offer for the role, and I was terrified. To take on an icon is a daunting task.
MANN: Delane, like the other actors and the playwright, hadn't even been born in 1964. They all had to learn as much as they could about their characters. After studying Clay, Matt Jones found himself drawn to the fighter's energy and his desire to prove himself.
JONES: He obviously had a pretty big chip on his shoulder. And for him, that came from a kind of a fractured home life, obviously what was going on at the time during the '50s and '60s, Jim Crowe down in the South. He's from Louisville, Kentucky, so there was a lot of hatred. And so this a guy who wanted to be this huge figure in the world.
MANN: Jim Brown, by contrast, seems to be strong in a quiet way says the actor who plays him, Kevin Daniels. He's played Magic Johnson on Broadway and Martin Luther King in Los Angeles. For this role, he watched plenty of footage of Brown on the field.
KEVIN DANIELS: But I also wanted, because of where the play is set, I wanted to see him off the field. I feel like when you're playing actual people, especially icons, the trap with that is you don't want to get caught into an impersonation. But there's certain things you want to suggest. Like, you know, he's so self-assured and he's just kind of within himself.
He's like this is how I was raised. This is what I believe and this is what I'm gonna do. I love you guys, but I can respect each of your individual opinions and still be strong in and of myself.
MANN: The civil rights movement was exploding in 1964 and each of the four characters expresses his individual perspective on empowerment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")
SAM COOKE: (Singing) a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come.
MANN: Sam Cooke enjoyed economic power by owning the rights to his recordings, which was unknown, even for a white artist, at the time, explains actor Ty Jones, who plays the singer.
TY JONES: I think it goes back to a line that he says in the play where he's like, we can't all go out and declare the white man the devil when he's arguing with Malcolm. Because if Sam Cooke took that route, he probably wouldn't make any money.
MANN: Jones' character gets angry about remarks Malcolm X made after President Kennedy was assassinated.
JONES: (As Sam Cooke) In your mind, Kennedy dying was just another one of those white devils who got what he deserved. Well, you know what? I liked JFK a lot and my momma cried when he died. So how do you think it made me feel to have her see my friend on television talking about good riddance?
DELANE: (As Malcolm X) First of all, I didn't say good riddance.
JONES: (As Sam Cooke) You said it was a case of the chickens coming home to roost.
MANN: Playwright, Kemp Powers, says this is a story of how fame can both enhance and taint friendships, and he wants audiences to come away with another message.
POWERS: The idea that black people are not monolithic. We have a wealth of different ideas and different opinions and that we often disagree, sometimes vehemently disagree. But at the end of the day, you can have a huge disagreement with a person, and that doesn't stop you from being friends.
MANN: The day after the gathering the play depicts, Cassius Clay announced he was joining the Nation of Islam, eventually changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Within a year, both Sam Cooke and Malcolm X were killed under questionable circumstances and within a few years, Jim Brown retired from professional football, embarked on an acting career and began working with at-risk youth. For NPR News, I'm Iris Mann.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, Muhammad Ali's boxing career has been documented and dramatized in all kinds of ways, from video games to animated series.
MONTAGNE: A new project said to be in the works would bring one of his legendary fights to the big screen. Deadline Hollywood is reporting Ang Lee will be directing a movie on the world of boxing in the 1960s and '70s. It will recreate 1975's Thrilla in Manila, When Ali faced off against Joe Frasier in a 14-round epic.
GREENE: And we'll have to wait and see how Ang Lee handles this project. He's known for his adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" and also for the film about two gay cowboys, "Brokeback Mountain."
MONTAGNE: He recently won an Oscar for directing this, "Life of Pi."
(SOUNDBITE OF TIGER ROARING)
MONTAGNE: In 3D, Ang Lee brought his audience onto a raft with a tiger.
GREENE: There we were. And one thing we know about this new boxing movie is audiences will be experiencing things in 3D ringside. And you are ringside at MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Rene Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.