What a great week for theatre! “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” by Santa Monica Rep at the Promenade Playhouse is hilarious and brilliant — snarky but smart. Imagine “Othello” as a rap song. Walking out, my friend said, “That was a riot; my face hurts.”
And the world premiere of “One Night in Miami” by Kemp Powers received the most prolonged, enthusiastic and completely deserved standing ovation, a genuine jump-out-of-your-seat reaction to the great writing, staging and acting in this important new play by Rogue Machine.
It’s an ingenious approach to a crucial part of American history. May it have a long life.
John Perrin Flynn, artistic director of Rogue Machine, has unerring theatrical instincts. At one of the company’s monthly “Rant & Rave” reading nights, Flynn heard a story by writer/journalist Kemp Powers, and asked him to write a play on a different topic. But Powers had an idea that had been fermenting in his brain for years, a unique window into the civil rights era of the 1960s.
Kemp read that on the night in 1964 when Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, beat odds-on favorite Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship, instead of partying he got together with three friends in the Miami ghetto-area hotel where he was staying: R&B singer/songwriter Sam Cooke; football legend Jim Brown; and Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X. The next morning, Clay announced he was joining the black Muslim organization.
Kemp, who describes these four men as his personal inspirations, imagined the conversation between them. He’s given us a precisely balanced and dramatically distilled picture of the various conflicts at work within the black power movement, and he’s done it without making these men mere symbols or turning the dialogue didactic.
I’m very impressed with the structure; we learn about each of the men in various pairings as they joke, jostle and get hostile with one another. Sam Cooke would be shot to death soon after, and Malcolm X was assassinated less than a year later, long after he and Clay parted as friends.
The set’s perfect: a motel room, a wrought iron balcony with palm fronds above stage left; two black Muslim guards standing stock-still in black suits and sunglasses staring us down before the play begins. As lights go down, we hear radio audio of Clay’s surprising win.
Cooke is played to perfection by Ty Jones, who also sings beautifully; Jim Brown is masterfully embodied by Kevin Daniels. Both are known partiers, in stark contrast to the righteous Malcolm X, uptightly captured by Jason Delane. Cassius Clay, a highly athletic Matt Jones, is somewhere in the middle, trying hard not to be tempted by the liquor-filled flasks being passed while attempting to be satisfied with the celebratory vanilla ice cream Malcolm has provided.
As Brown asks whether he’ll miss the pleasures that “taking the path of righteousness” means he’ll leave behind, Clay answers honestly, “It sounded like a better idea before my championship.” Cooke points out the hypocrisy of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, living like a pharaoh while black people suffer. Malcolm is in trouble within the organization and he just wishes he could just “go back.”
As the evening wears on, Malcolm accuses Cooke of writing sappy love songs for white consumers, instead of such impactful lyrics as Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Cooke retorts that he’s the first black man to own his own record company and helps his people by hiring them. Cooke later wrote the iconic “A Change is Gonna Come,” which we hear. There’s also a star turn as Cooke reenacts a performance where he dropped the mask of popular song maker and returned to his gospel roots, rocking both the imaginary and the actual house.
Each character pairing of one with, or versus, the other gives us another insight into the churning changes within the black community then and a larger insight into social conflicts of all kinds now.
This is a play you must see. You most certainly will be hearing more about it in the future. “One Night in Miami” runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Rogue Machine, which occupies Theatre/Theater, 5014 Pico Blvd., just two blocks west of La Brea. For more information visit www.roguemachinetheatre.com or call (855) 585-5185 for reservations.
Cutting Shakespeare to size
Sure, you’ve always meant to get to the Shakespeare Festival in Oregon, and naturally you’d never miss Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at The Broad when they’re in town. But be serious: have you really read or seen the complete works of William Shakespeare?
It’s almost, but not impossible, to believe that just three actors compact all 37 plays into a two act, riotously funny 97-minute take that manages to capture the Bard’s essence.
Santa Monica Rep presents “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at the intimate Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica. It’s partly snarky, but very smart.
Act One dispenses with the histories and tragedies: “Titus Andronicus” as a cooking show (a high five with no fingers, a human head pie); “Othello” as a rap song, that — trust me on this — really works; and a rapid-fire mash-up of all 16 comedies, whose plots, let’s face it, share so many plot twists (Twins! Mistaken identities! Cross dressing!) that it’s often hard to tell them apart. Act Two is devoted to “Hamlet,” with multiple cameos by Ophelia and members of the audience.
This irreverent romp features quick costume, wig and sex changes with remarkably agile physical comedy by company director Eric Bloom and actors Mike Niedzwieck and Lucas Kwan Peterson.
It’s a real winner. The Promenade Playhouse is located at 1404 Third St., next to Anthropologie. Visit www.santamonicarep.org or call (213) 268-1454. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., only through June 30. Don’t miss it!
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.