Wildly shifting Hollywood timetables, caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic, created an unusual alignment for Kemp Powers. On Christmas Day 2020, two of his film projects were released: Soul, where he was co-writer and co-director, was made available for streaming on Disney+ and One Night in Miami…, where he was writer and executive producer, was given a brief theatrical release before a streaming release on Amazon a few weeks later. The coincidence of releases is even more remarkable considering neither project was completed before the pandemic hit.
The genesis of that Christmas Day began many years earlier when Powers was a member of the Los Angles theater company, Rogue Machine Theatre, and writing the stage play One Night in Miami…, on which the film is based. Powers’ play began with a simple and intriguing historical fact. On the night of Muhammad Ali’s (then named Cassius Clay) upset victory over boxing’s heavyweight world champion, Sonny Liston, four prominent Black figures, Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke, met in a hotel room to celebrate that victory. While there’s no record of what happened that February 25th, 1964 evening, Powers artistically uses the event to explore societal issues key for both the Black community and Americans in general.
I recently caught up with Powers via a Jitsi telecon to talk, in both artistic and practical terms, about the stage-to-screen journey of One Night in Miami…
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kevin Delin: One Night in Miami… had its world premiere in Los Angeles on the Rogue Machine Theatre’s stage in 2013. When did you start writing it?
Kemp Powers: Probably about 2011.
Yeah but I don’t want to make it seem like I was writing for two years. I wrote the first draft in six weeks based on research that I had done for years. I had years’ worth of research. I wrote that first draft in like six weeks, very quickly, and did a reading with some actors. And it was terrible. But the good thing about that experience was you can’t get to the good version until you write the bad version. Right?
And I didn’t even really need notes. It was one of those things where just hearing the words read aloud, it was so painfully evident some of the major things that I’ve done wrong with the first draft.
Who was the audience you had in mind when you were writing this play?
Myself at 18. That was my audience: young Black people. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a Young Adult play. But I absolutely wrote it with a young adult audience in mind. I’m talking 17 to 25.
You wanted to introduce them to these men?
I wanted to show them that they can pick up the torch of their iconic forebears and do every bit as much as them. Because on the day that I wrote the first draft of this play, I was already older than all those guys in the room were on that night! And they had already accomplished some pretty amazing things. I think how we’re often distanced from our icons because we’re made to believe that they’re larger than life. They’re almost not human. We start believing that their accomplishments are impossible and that they always knew what they were doing.
The reality is great movements are always youth movements, always young people flying by the seat of their pants. It was Cassius Clay at 22, Jim Brown at 28, Sam Cooke was like 31 on this night, and he’d already done all these things. Malcolm X would be dead before he was 40. I purposely wrote in lots of anachronisms in the early versions of the stage play. A lot of times they would use expressions that were very, very modern and those were the types of things that I knew pissed a lot of critics off. And pissed some audience members off.
Because it wasn’t historically accurate.
You know: “Why are you using these expressions, these anachronisms?” I hear your dramaturgy but you’re missing the fucking point. I want the young people sitting through this to see themselves in these guys.
You’re working in the great tradition of Shakespeare who had all kinds of anachronisms in his plays.
That’s the thing! And I’m aware of this. But for some reason, there seems to be a very low tolerance and people will get very angry. I would get notes sometimes like “I really enjoyed your play but I felt compelled to write you a note because of these anachronisms and someone wouldn’t use them.” I know! Thank you for educating me, stranger. I get it but I’m not in your drama course.
I guess ignorance is bliss. Because if I had been in a program, someone would have slapped me on the wrist, or maybe not, when I was doing these things. I’m just someone who grew up going to theater and just enjoying it. For me, it was very organic. I just would read a lot of plays. I’d see a play I’d like, I’d buy a copy of it, I would read it. So, I picked up styles and things like that just from the plays I happened to read. And when I started writing them myself, I felt as long as I stayed within the rules of the format, then what was the big deal? That’s the whole point of theater.
You said that you wrote this for young Black audiences. Young White audiences were not in your mind at all?
No. Most of Rogue Machine’s company members – I don’t know how it is now because I haven’t been there in years – but at the time, most of Rogue Machine’s company members were actors. And it was almost overwhelmingly White with just a couple of exceptions like Tucker Smallwood. And you know, there were only a couple of us in the company who were writers like me, John Pollono, Henry Murray. It was a company with, like, 100 actors and mostly White actors. I remember asking [Rogue Machine Theatre Artistic Director] John Flynn: “Hey, why don’t we do plays with a Black cast that appeal to a Black audience?” This is at the time we’re on Pico and La Brea.
I said “It’s kind of funny that we’re in this neighborhood. And we never do any programming for the audience in this community.”
Flynn kind of laughed and was like, “Well, do you really think the folks across the street at Roscoe’s [House of Chicken and Waffles] or The Comedy Union are going to come over here to see a play?” And I said, you know, arrogantly, “If I write a play for them, yes, they will. I can write something that will get the folks from Roscoe’s to cross the street and get the folks from the Comedy Union to cross the street. It has to be something that matters to them and they have to feel welcome but I can get them across the street.”
That was kind of the challenge that was thrown down. And that’s what happened. It was part of the reason that One Night in Miami… sold out the entire run and I’m talking sold out without Rogue Machine giving tickets away.
Can you enumerate a couple of the major issues that the first draft of the play had, if it’s not too embarrassing?
Well, it was a book report. Plain and simple. I mean, it was almost three hours long! It was all about educating the audience about all the amazing things these guys had done. There was really no story there. There were elements of the central debate between Malcolm and Sam in a very nascent, early form but I hadn’t quite yet learned the rule when it comes to writing – whether it be historical fiction, whatever you want to call it, biography – that none of us were there and can recount verbatim what people said in any situation. And if we did, it wouldn’t make for good theater or good film. So ultimately what we do is we take all the research we know, we get all the interviews we do, we take everything that we know about the real person we’re writing about and we just use it to power this avatar we’re creating, that we’re putting into a situation, that’s a situation of our own creation. It’s based on a real event but all the details of that night are of my creation in terms of what they’re doing, what they’re talking about, and just trying to have them react realistically as they bounce off the other characters.
I equate it to playing game of chess against yourself. If you ever put a chess board up and no one comes around to play with you, you play against yourself. You want to make the strongest possible move that you can each time. You’re not going to be like “I’m going to go easy on myself on this side so I can make sure I win.” You just want to make the strongest possible move. So I’m trying to have each of these characters, powered by everything I learned about them, make the strongest possible move to make their case. That’s really what enabled the play to start to sing. But that wasn’t until the second draft. After that first draft, I stepped away and didn’t really come back to the play for, I think, almost a year.
Yeah, it was almost a year that it just kind of went back in the drawer. Life is full of surprises. I dealt with family tragedy and stuff and just didn’t really feel like writing for a little while. So when I finally did come back to it, I hadn’t looked at those pages in a year. I had reams of notes that I made to myself, mostly on the margins of the script. I kind of cracked it open and banged out another draft. The reading I did of that second draft went infinitely better and then I realized I had a play.
Where did the second draft reading happen?
The play’s world premier director, sure.
Yeah, Carl was based in New York. So Classical Theatre of Harlem arranges for a director to do a public reading of new plays. It was called “Future Classics.” That was the name of the program. So that’s how I met Carl, Carl was my director for the reading. I basically just came the day of and sat through one rehearsal and then they do a public reading. It was at the Audubon Ballroom.
Where Malcolm was killed!
Yeah. That was pretty surreal. It was just one of those funny things. And somehow in all the marketing, they put the wrong date on all the marketing materials. Usually, those readings end up having, they told me, 100 to 150 people show up. But because we had the wrong date online and they were trying to give people the right date and get audience out, I think we had about 20 people show up. It was a very empty room. But those 20 people were riveted. Even though it wasn’t a big audience, it was very evident they were excited about the play. They really leaned in. The young people, in particular, during the Q&A afterwards had a lot of really thoughtful questions. They were like “I hadn’t really known much about several of these guys and I was Googling it.” And that also keyed me in you don’t need to do the book report component. People – particularly young people – are going to Google whenever they’re interested in a character anyway. So that was informative.
After that, I came back home to L.A. and then I did another reading at Rogue Machine. And that was the last reading we did before John Flynn asked if they could produce it in their next season. So, we did three readings. And I don’t think I did anything other than minimal changes between the second and third readings because they were very close together. I think that third reading was just a few months later.
That’s impressive speed because, these days, there’s a tendency to do endless workshopping.
It still wasn’t perfect, you have to understand. I didn’t really lock in on a final version of it until it ran in London. Between the original production and each subsequent production until London, I probably would rewrite it 10% to 15%.
Your log line or hook is irresistible. You have these four very famous guys. As your Ali says they’re “young, black, righteous, famous, and unapologetic.” And they are. It’s incredible these icons really did get together that night and that’s where your play begins. But, of course, nobody except those guys knows what went on. One of them, Jim Brown, is still alive. Did you talk to the families at all?
Not until they came and saw the play.
I laughed when the film starts off with the ABKCO logo because I’m thinking “Oh, Allen Klein’s company. Which owns Sam Cooke’s music. What a shock.”
They were there at Rogue Machine.
Allen Klein’s family?
Yeah. Jody Klein, the president of ABKCO, was at Rogue Machine at the second preview. He was there before the play came out and watched it so, immediately after the play debuted, I was contacted by the ABKCO lawyers.
For the rights to the music?
Yeah, we didn’t have them. So I got on the phone. Jody didn’t want to talk to Rogue Machine, he want to talk to me. He was like “I saw your play.” That’s when I figured it out. The note from the lawyer was very specific. It wasn’t just stuff that was in the script. The actors who played Sam Cooke would sometimes, in between scenes, hum different songs to himself. You know, other Sam Cooke songs and that was on the list of songs that we illegally used that the lawyer sent us. I was like, “Oh shit, I guess the lawyer came to the play,” but Jody had actually flown out from New York. He said, “You wrote a really good play. How come you didn’t ask for the rights?” And I told him pretty point blank that I knew he would have said “no” because I’m a nobody. So I figured I’d write this play. And either he would sue me or produce me. So Jody became a producer that night.
I love it.
The truth of it was there was no covering myself. I literally completely exposed myself and waited for the first person to come at me with their lawyers. It happened to be ABKCO and Jody because of the music issue. And then Jody and ABKCO became the producers of the play even while it was running at Rogue Machine. So that they were the entity that was able to get all the legal ducks in a row.
It helps when they’re interested in the property.
That’s what it is. They told me they’ve been trying to figure out an interesting way to bring a Sam Cooke play to the stage and a Sam Cooke movie to the screen and they couldn’t really crack it. They felt like I cracked it. A lot of other people felt – and these were notes that I got – that I was telling the wrong story. Because – particularly a White audience – everyone loves Muhammad Ali, you know? So, they want a whole play about Muhammad Ali. They want Muhammad Ali and him struggling because who doesn’t love Muhammad Ali? Who doesn’t want to hear his quips? I had no interest in writing a play about Muhammad Ali. My interest was always from the get-go, writing a play about a debate between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X.
That’s what’s interesting to me about the structure of the play. We see Malcolm X at the end of his life, when he’s almost been broken. You don’t see his fiery side. He was a street hustler. He was in prison and all the rest of it. And he’s much more vulnerable in your play which I think is an interesting take on him. I would have thought that more of the play’s spine would have been Malcolm trying to use Ali as his escape mechanism for his troubles with the Nation of Islam. Especially since the day following this night, Cassius Clay would announce he’d be joining the Nation of Islam.
Right. It does go a little more into that with the film, of course, than it does the stage play. But I just didn’t want to do that. It helps that my generation all read The Autobiography of Malcolm X before we got out of high school. So you know it from front to back. Reading other books, particularly Manning Marable’s wonderful, wonderful book on Malcolm X, you start getting this more nuanced, holistic view of the man. It got me thinking about Ossie Davis’ amazing eulogy he wrote for Malcolm X, in which he asked: “Have you ever spent time with Brother Malcolm?” And he alludes to the shyness, the softness, the kindness, his smile, and it’s something that’s repeated from several people who knew him intimately. It was repeated by Nina Simone. It was repeated by Dick Gregory who often described Malcolm as incredibly shy and a dry wit. This is the Malcolm that I wanted to write for the purposes of this night. Keeping in mind everything that has happened up until this night and knowing what’s going to happen right after this night, how do I see Malcolm on this night? Which is very, very different than even a year or two before or even four or five months later. He hasn’t even gone to Mecca yet.
Yeah. Although you can see that he’s ready for his awakening on that Hajj.
Your artistic choices obviously resonated with audiences as One Night in Miami… did quite well in its world premiere at Rogue Machine. Didn’t it extend?
Four months. And it could have kept on running for another four months sold out but they had to stop because ABKCO was a producer and they were like, “Enough is enough.” But the reality is that they suddenly saw a diverse audience. The audience got younger and a lot of Black people started showing up at Rogue Machine, like they never had before. Usually, the only Black people at Rogue Machine were me and Tucker [Smallwood] sitting in the audience. And then, all of a sudden, it was like, 5, 10, there were nights where it was 40, 50 percent Black. Because word got out that there’s this new play and people who were going to Ebony Rep and other theaters suddenly were coming over there.
None of that surprised me. Just like it didn’t surprise me that by speaking specifically to that group, not only would it not alienate the White audience, they’d be fine with it. I’ve been saying from the beginning, ‘til I’m blue in the face, do you need to be Italian to enjoy The Sopranos or The Godfather? Why do we always ask these ridiculous questions where we accuse cultural specificity of somehow alienating one audience or another? That’s bullshit! The question is only asked when it’s Black, Latino, some other group. The reality is a well-told, culturally-specific story is the best at helping us realize universal ideas. How close we are to one another. How, no matter what part of the world we’re in, we all deal with our family, we all have issues at work, we all go through certain crises, you know what I mean? It’s how universal it is.
But there’s some kind of concern that a “White theater audience” will somehow be bent out of shape by a certain subject matter or you have to do something pandering to them. I was in a writers’ group at Rogue Machine before the original production. They had a writers’ workshop and the writers were really nice but it was interesting some of the notes other writers would give me. Like “Where’s the White people?” Like “Should the FBI kick the door down?” Really? If you don’t see yourself then you’re not going to give it a chance? If that’s the case then Black people and Latinos and Asians shouldn’t be giving anything a chance. [laughs] Until very recently.
There are aspects of your play that are deeply written. They reminded me a little bit of BLM [Black Lives Matter] while I was watching it. It’s amazing you wrote this thing a long time ago in the scale of things.
Yeah, before there was a BLM!
Yeah! And that struck me emotionally. It made me sad when your Malcolm X says, “Hey, these are new times, we can say what we want.” I’m thinking “ugh” because that was nearly 60 years ago and we’re still dealing with the same issues! It also struck me that the central argument between Malcolm and Sam Cooke is an American argument: How do you buy your influence in the society? What is power based on? Sam Cooke immediately says, “Baby, it’s the money. I got the money. I know how to get the money. I know how to make the money and I can influence through the money.” And Malcolm is a lot more ethereal.
He speaks to a certain level of purity, you know what I mean? You get it in theory but in practice, it’s a lot harder. I always say you need people like Sam and people like Malcolm in order to move us forward. Sometimes the institution has to be reduced to rubble and you have to start over. That’s Malcolm’s way of doing things. But a lot of times, you can bring about more effective change through small incremental things you do from the inside that no one’s going to celebrate, because they don’t see it happening. That’s why Sam Cooke’s story was so powerful to me. That’s why he was a personal hero. That’s why Sam Cooke was pretty much the reason I wanted to write the play. Sam was always the key figure that made me want to do it. Because I feel like the way Sam moved through the world and the effectiveness with which he moved through the world, most people did not recognize. It really is a model.
It’s honestly been the model with which I’ve moved through the world. Especially moving through Hollywood. How many times have I found myself in situations where no one like me has been in this situation and I’ve ended up being the first? You’re faced with these frustrating situations and you can either throw up your hands and walk out or you can choose what hills you’re going to die on, move the needle for the next person to come through, and hopefully have an easier time of things.
I think what Sam did was a lot more thankless but the impact of Sam on his industry – on his peers – it’s so evident in so many different ways outside of his music. It really is.
After L.A., how many times was One Night in Miami… produced before it ran in London?
So it hopped over the ocean before getting to New York.
It’s never been performed in New York. Other than that reading in Harlem.
At the time of the L.A. production, Bob Verini at Variety wrote “It’s easy to see why investors are eyeing this cracker jack world premiere.” Were you engaged in any talks to bring it to New York?
Yeah. But I mean, easier said than done, right?
Of course. Your play won two major playwriting awards in Los Angeles that year (the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle 2013 Ted Schmitt Award and the LA Weekly 2014 Playwriting Award) and even that wasn’t enough to bring it to New York.
Right. But it was also an Equity waiver production. It wasn’t coming out of one of the regional theaters. It wasn’t going through the usual kind of farm system that plays that come from the regions go through when they go to New York. The best chance of that, I think, was probably London. But it didn’t even transfer to the West End. That effectively ended any middling interest anyone might have had in New York of doing the play. After the play didn’t transfer to London, the play was pretty much gonna – I don’t want to say die on the vine because I think there would have always been some small theaters who might have been interested in doing it. But when you get award nominations and then don’t transfer, there’s an assumption that there’s something wrong with it – that the producers don’t have faith in it, that they see it as something that won’t draw the right audience or a large enough audience.
It’s way cheaper to produce a play on the West End in London than New York. So if you don’t get a West End transfer, producers in New York are going to be like “There’s no way in Hell.” I know producers who would explain to me in emails all the reasons why it would not make a good play on Broadway. Look, I’m not a Broadway theater producer but some of the reasons involved things like not having a Hollywood star in the lead, you know what I mean? I can laugh about it now but you have to understand that it’s incredibly frustrating.
It’s frustrating, too, because it wasn’t even a goal. At no point when the play was getting success was I thinking: “Oh, now I gotta go to New York.” I didn’t really care. I just wanted people to stage it. I wrote something to be staged as simply as humanly possible. But the politics and the rules of theater don’t even allow that. It’s like “Oh, well, you can’t start going to too many regional theaters without going to New York.”
There are all these rules. [laughs] All the theaters that expressed interest regionally in producing One Night in Miami… before it went to London had me thinking: “Why do we even need to go to New York? You literally have a dozen large theaters here.” But going to too many of them could inhibit your ability to go to New York! And that’s what’s so frustrating. So, at the end of all of that, of saying “no, no, no” to what would have been lovely productions that would have gotten out to an audience – and I write for an audience – at the end of all that, it’s still “no” [in going to New York].
And it’s not “no” because you failed. One Night in Miami… is a play by a Black playwright done at the Donmar Warehouse. A playwright no one in England had ever heard of. You know what I’m saying? Kwame Kwei-Armah [who directed the play at the Donmar], he’s a hometown hero. But it’s a playwright no one’s ever heard of with a brand new play no one’s ever heard of with a cast that isn’t A-list celebrities. They’re incredible stage actors and a lot of those guys are going to be stars, I’m sure of that. But, even in London, stage plays are often sold based on the same things as in New York, like, “Oh, a celebrity is doing Hamlet.” We didn’t have any of those things. And we still came out with an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Play which none of us saw that coming. Some audience must have really, really enjoyed the play.
Do you think there is something ironic how many Black artists go to Europe to get discovered in America? From Josephine Baker to Jimi Hendrix and I’m sure we can name more recent examples. You also popped over to Europe and generated a lot of buzz there in one of its major theater cities.
That was a conscious decision though. I vocalized that to the producers and everyone involved: I was more interested in pursuing getting One Night in Miami… staged on the West End than I was on Broadway. It came from a number of reasons. I’m more into straight plays than musicals and the West End has a lot more plays as opposed to musicals. Broadway is musical driven. And I go to London a lot and just go to plays. That’s actually my place; the city that I go to the most to watch new plays is London. I see more new plays in London than I do in New York and I’m from New York. The variety of subject matter that I see written about on stage there is mind blowing. I’ve always loved it.
New Yorkers are like “If I could make it there, I can make it anywhere.” For theater and me, London was like that: if I can get my play staged here and connect to an audience here. Plus, I thought that audience would be open to the story without any personal prejudices because it’s not their story. I’ve always found the English to be fascinated with certain American music.
That’s a big point you make in the play.
Exactly. I just felt this feels like the perfect audience for this play right now. And I found an audience. It wasn’t universally acclaimed, I mean, it got really good reviews. But again, a big reason why the producers did not want to transfer to the West End is because it had a lot of four-star reviews and they wanted five-star reviews. So, these are the things. If the reviews don’t say “must see”, those are the types of things that make you not transfer. So the fact that we got – across the board – four star reviews but there weren’t that many five star reviews killed us. Didn’t matter the place was sold out. Didn’t matter that people were raving about it.
I didn’t know how popular the play was until I got to the Olivier Awards and the security guards were pulling me aside – because all the security guards were Black guys – and they were like “that was my first time going to a play at that place and I loved it.” And it was hard for them to get tickets because the Donmar is so small [251 seats], it often sells out before the show opens. We didn’t sell out until maybe a couple of weeks in. But again: a play by a playwright you’ve never heard of with no stars in it. But our very first preview, we got a standing ovation and it was standing ovations on a nightly basis. Even the critics took note of it. Critics who did not like the play were angry: “Oh, I sat in a standing ovation at the Donmar, which almost never happens. It’s probably because they’re just happy to see Black actors on stage here.”
Do you think that because of the topic of the play and the color of the cast you were held to a different standard?
I have no idea. I could speculate until the cows come home. But the reality is that the play got nominated for an Olivier and I was more stunned than anyone. Because based on the reviews, I did not see that coming.
Obviously somebody had good taste.
But that’s what I mean. It’s like the people who vote for the Olivier Awards apparently loved it because we got the nomination. It’s kind of funny. I feel like I have a great audience in London. But critically? No. A lot of my work has had kind of middling reviews at best.
Do you think that the critics are coming from an academic standpoint? And that you’re writing for people?
That could be it. Again, I’m writing for an audience. It’s an audience that looks and thinks like me. So that seems like a reasonable assumption but ultimately, I don’t know. But thankfully, it hasn’t stopped the success of any of the work over there. The play went back. We did a UK tour of the play where it ran in five theaters around the UK a few years later. It ran at the Bristol Old Vic. One Night in Miami… has been staged more in the UK than it has been in the US!
Why did you originally not want to adapt the play into a film?
Well, understand we’re talking about 2013. This is my first play. I’m not a screenwriter. I’ve never written for film and television. So a film version of this means a producer will want to option it and then hire a screenwriter and try to make the movie.
You wanted to be the artist.
Well, no, I didn’t actually. I just didn’t trust what Hollywood would do with that story. Seriously. I remember the notes I would get sometimes writing it as a play. I just felt like the first reason I wrote it – the audience I wrote it for – Hollywood would not want to tell that story and tell that story in that way.
The play is not supposed to be a documentary. We agree on that from the get-go. But there are a couple of choices you made that I found interesting and would like to discuss from an artist’s perspective. First, the play’s Jackie Wilson is not the impish villain he is in the film. In the stage play, Malcolm relates a story where Sam loses sound during a Boston performance because of a technology glitch. In the film, however, Sam loses sound during this same performance because Jackie sabotages him by deliberately cutting the power. Can you talk about that shift?
Sam and Jackie were always very competitive. I always loved the fact that during that time when they did those reviews, there was a lot of sabotage. Artists sabotage each other all the time. And there’s a great video that goes around of Sam Cooke performing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha.”
I’ve seen it.
Jackie Wilson pops out. And everyone’s like “isn’t that great?” I see red when I see that video.
Yeah, because Sam’s onstage, in the middle of a performance.
Every time I see that video I see fucking red. Because they’re like, “Oh, yes, Sam played along.” But you can see it on Sam’s face. He didn’t know Jackie was gonna pull that shit. And that’s embarrassing and potentially humiliating. So, in writing the Boston scene, I wanted to show it as Jackie as a sabotage artist. Because I feel like that’s an even better way to have the sound go out. [laughs]
Right. I get you. I’m curious why that didn’t make it into the play. Was it that you had a flashback opportunity in the film so it was more visual?
I feel like that’s something you need to see. Just talking about it doesn’t enhance anything. You know what I mean?
The great thing is cutting back and forth and being able to show the story as Malcolm was telling it. So, I always love the part where Malcolm says Jackie was the king of sabotage and we see Jackie just hold up the dollar bill and pay the man [to cut the power]. It just adds a comic quality that you couldn’t get on a stage play. Sometimes telling it on stage is not as effective as showing it in film.
Yeah, it’s two different media. The other artistic choice I found interesting is a timeline shift you made. Sam Cooke released “A Change is Gonna Come” on an album a couple of weeks before this night in Miami.
He had only performed [the song] on The Tonight Show like two weeks before that night. And he didn’t want to. [laughs] But the song wasn’t released as a single till after his death.
Yes. However, Sam’s having written the song means that, in real life, he already understands Malcolm’s side of the argument.
Of course he does. In both a play and a film, you have to have conflict. The reality of it is I don’t believe that Malcolm X and Sam ever had an argument. Ever. Malcolm’s influence on Sam was outsized. Sam wore an Afro at a time when no R&B musician wore natural hair. We tend to make Sam more contemporary than he is. But in his heyday in the 1950s, this man was wearing a natural Afro. He was definitely the only Black R&B star wearing a natural. There were little keys to his militance present his entire career but having Sam be just a slightly more work-within-the-system version of Malcolm, I don’t have a play. There’s literally no conflict. It’s a transformation that of course had been happening and I’m sure he had been inspired by Malcolm. But for the purposes of a pivotal night, it makes a lot more narrative sense to have him much further over here. To have more of an extreme arc than to have him be like, “I pretty much agree with you, Malcolm.” Because what you’re describing is kind of where Jim is in the play. You see what I’m saying?
Jim is like, “We’re on the same page. I just like White ladies and pork chops. But if not for these couple of little things, dude, we agree on everything!” And that’s actually where Sam was, too. That’s why the four of them were friends! They actually all kind of represented a nascent Black power. But there has to be some conflict with some outside force.
Ultimately, the whole purpose of this was to have a conversation, that is a real conversation, that people have been having going back to W.E.B. [Du Bois] and Booker T. Washington, all the way to today and Jay-Z arguing with Harry Belafonte. It’s a conversation that’s been happening but just reverse engineering those principles back into the mouths of the men that most clearly represent each way of thinking. So it was really important if Malcolm was one extreme that Sam be the other extreme. And I think his granddaughter, his widow, his family, they all got it because they loved it. The characterization they thought was incredible. They thought you couldn’t have done a better job.
That’s why I always positioned the play as fiction. That move was simply because Sam had to make a change and have an arc. And the whole point of this was for Malcolm in this story to be a big inspiration for that change. Of course, Bob Dylan’s song inspired “A Change is Gonna Come” but Sam was also inspired by all the shit that happened to him on the road. There were other specific events that were much more outsize, inspiring to him to do this song. In the film, he’s doing “Chain Gang.” Which is a song that’s not a stupid love ballad. That’s him on the road seeing Black men digging ditches. So, yeah, of course, I know all that. That’s the whole point. It’s about the conflict and having Sam seem not quite there yet because I want him to make the turn on this night.
Did you see the four characters as archetypes of the Black community?
Did that help define the characters for you? Not as historical men but as characters in a play.
That was a part of it. That’s why it connected to [One Night in Miami… film director] Regina [King]. When she said things like “You wrote a love letter to Black men,” it’s because they are supposed to represent certain archetypes. When I did my third reading, a bunch of brothers who were in the audience were like, “I love this so much, because I felt like every Black man was represented.” Not just in the four of them but also in Kareem and Jamal [Malcolm’s bodyguards], who were much less present in the film than they are in the play. But in the play, it’s really six parts because you have the four of them that are the famous archetypes but then you have Kareem and Jamal who were when you don’t have the benefit of fame or fortune. Because in many ways, Jamal is Cassius Clay without the fame.
Right. They are of the same generation.
Absolutely. And Kareem is Malcolm X. You know without being that articulate, without his gifts. So, yeah, it was always a combination of the historical mix with an archetype and which of these historical figures best fit that archetype. In the play, Jim is the only character that never leaves the room.
He’s the anchor.
Yeah, he’s the anchor. He’s always been the first character that’s been cast in just about every production and the film. We cast Aldis Hodge first. So it’s kind of interesting how Jim is an anchor. Even the first draft of the play that was terrible, the one thing that worked was the Jim character. That was the only thing that worked in the first draft was like, “the Jim Brown character is good though.” [laughs]
Cassius and Jim are athletes in the story. But Jim is making a transition into entertainment.
Yes. Jim was more successful in Hollywood financially than he ever was as a football player.
Which is ironic.
It’s really kind of comical how he was the guy getting a lot of films greenlit for a little while. And everyone knows about his relationship with Richard Pryor and the company they were running for a while. Jim was a pretty important person behind the scenes. And that’s not even getting into his Amer-I-can program and his Black Economic Union.
Your Malcolm says “Hey, Jim has been giving money to the Black business community.” That goes to your point that there are the non-showy things but those tend to be more important because they’re more pervasive.
Right. And none of this stuff is secret but it didn’t feel like people ever talked about these aspects of each of these men. I think they do now because they’ve seen a movie about it, a play about it. But even back in 2012, if I brought up Jim Brown and talked about his Black Economic Union, 99% of people would have a blank look on their face.
Yeah. That’s the power of art.
Yeah. So, in hindsight, everyone’s a know-it-all. But the reality is they were really defining these guys in much more narrower terms. That was part of the motivating factor for wanting to paint more of a nuanced picture of these guys. My research wasn’t to write a hagiography or some great big biography. I just was fascinated by how these four became friends and why they were hanging out.
Did you ever hear any feedback from Jim Brown on the film?
Yeah, he saw the movie. I heard he loved it.
One of his daughters came and saw the play when it was at Rogue Machine. She really, really loved it. And then another of his daughters was actually in the movie. She had a very small part. She played Sonny Liston’s wife in the fight.
She’s the one that’s screaming from the audience.
Yeah, that’s one of Jim Brown’s daughters. Several of Muhammad Ali’s daughters – Laila, May May, and Hana – came and saw the play. By then Muhammad Ali he wasn’t traveling anymore so he never had an opportunity to see it. But it’s been really cool getting notes. I read an article where they had Sam Cooke’s granddaughter and Leslie [Odom, Jr. who plays Sam Cooke in the film] in a kind of joint interview. That’s really satisfying because, again, Sam was my reason for writing it. He was my way into telling the story. I was motivated from this desire to write something about Sam Cooke, my favorite artist. An artist that I thought few people understood. So it’s pretty hilarious now, reading articles on Slate, angry at me and criticizing me for “mischaracterizing Sam Cooke, who was so great, and Powers doesn’t capture his true greatness.” People tend to miss the fucking point. [laughs]
The writer’s lament…
I don’t mind because there are people who have never heard Sam Cooke, never knew who he was, never knew his songs, who are now doing a lot of digging on their own and they’ll make new discoveries. Even some of those articles that are critical go out of their way to lay out there all the things that I already knew. [laughs] It’s like, “Yes, would you be talking about Sam Cooke right now?” And the answer is “No, you wouldn’t be.” [laughs]
Which is astonishing given his influence on American music.
Of course. First Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, you know? The very first class.
Not only are people interested in the story you chose to tell, but your story is highly accessible which says a lot about your writing. And now, you’ve also written a Pixar film [Soul]. That’s probably the highest gold standard of storytelling in Hollywood these days.
And what made them interested in me as a writer? They read One Night in Miami…, the play. So there you go.
Did any of them see it?
No. They were looking for writers. They were asking around at the agencies and they sent them my play. And that’s what got me at Pixar.
I’ve read One Night in Miami… was your first play?
It literally was your first play?
Full-length play. I’d written short plays. Yeah, that was my first full-length play.
Well, that’s going to be inspirational to somebody. Which was your more favorite experience: working with the material as a play or as a film?
It’s not even a fair comparison. It’s so apples and oranges, man. I mean, theater is such a unique beast and working on the stage, it’s a joy. It’s a joy to me for a reason because it’s a different kind of collaboration. And, you know, while the stakes feel incredibly high, when you’re working on stage, relative to film, they’re kind of lower stakes. [laughs]
Yeah, there’s less money involved.
Yeah, there’s less money involved.
But the stage is considered the writer’s arena.
No one can make me make a change on the stage. They can say “We really think you should do this change, if not, we don’t know if we’ll produce your play.” Which happens. And you know, people have that right to do that. But generally speaking, yeah, the writer is king.
And then you go to the film and Regina was king.
Absolutely. But I still had a seat at the table because I was an executive producer. And that’s the key thing. Being a writer-plus has been so much the source of my enjoyment with Hollywood. A lot of writers don’t have that level of enjoyment because writing for film, while the money is good, the writer is at the bottom of the totem pole. The Guild had to fight to get writers invited to the openings of movies that they wrote, you know what I mean? [laughs] So, that’s how writers are usually treated in film.
And TV, I think, is so popular because people see it as closer to playwriting where a showrunner also has control over the creation of the product. I work in TV as well but writers and showrunners are two different skill sets. Showrunning is a management job and not every talented writer I necessarily think wants to be or is going to be good at being a showrunner. That’s a manager’s job. So I feel like writing in film kind of gets a little bit of a bad rap because writers don’t fight enough, I think, for that extra level of involvement.
I don’t want to speak for Regina but it seems like she always wanted me around. Like, if it were up to her, I would have been on set the entire time we shot the film. I didn’t have time because I was making Soul for Pixar! So I was only able to spare three and a half, four weeks, I think, total and I was flying back and forth from Oakland to New Orleans. But Regina wanted me there and the producers Jody [Klein from ABKCO Films] and Keith Calder and Jess Calder from Snoot Entertainment, they really wanted and valued my opinion. So just having a seat at the table makes it a completely different experience. I was there for casting. I was there for auditions of actors. It was a totally different experience than a new screenwriter usually has on a film.
Is that because of the success of the play? Does Hollywood value that?
I think Regina valued that. Regina jokingly called me her “Kempipedia.” Whenever someone would say, “How accurate is this or that?”, she would love having me there to say “Kemp” because I had the reference. You’re talking to a guy who spent two decades as a journalist. It was no small amount of research and I think having me around put Regina very much at ease and allowed her to focus on what she needed to focus on. So I think it was because of Regina.
Do you think the conversations in One Night in Miami… have intentional bearing on the discussions today?
It’s coincidence. It’s a sad reality. This thing that’s topical now isn’t even topical. It’s been going on forever! It’s a constant, constant thing for more than 60 years. Since the ending of slavery, it’s been constant. We’re having these conversations – and we’ve been having them since way before that night – because these issues seem to continuously plague our community. But it’s not speaking to straight from the headlines. When the first production ran in 2013, I remember the day that the cast called me because I lived four blocks from Rogue Machine at the time. And they had just come back with a verdict on Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman had just gotten off. And the cast was really upset. And they were like, “Can you come down to the theater? Because we’d like to do a Q&A afterwards and just talk about it.” And so I did. I went down to the theater and afterwards we ended up talking for, like, two hours with the audience about it. And I remember Carl had been doing a lot of interviews. And he said in several of them “I feel like we’re entering a new civil rights period right now” and a lot of times the writers kind of snickered at that idea as though it was hyperbole. You know what I mean? It’s like “Come on!” but now, seven, eight years later, look at where we are.
Do you feel that there are the equivalents of Malcolm X now expecting you to act like a Sam Cooke?
Everyone has a different way. The wonderful thing is that I’m really encouraged now because I feel like a lot of people – young people – really seem to be motivated to take up the baton. Look at NBA players and how vocal they are compared to the generation in the 80s. Where it was like, “You don’t want to mess up your endorsements,” now NBA players are incredibly outspoken.
There’s always going to be someone who is going to take a look at my art and the art that I put out into the world, and say I’m not doing it fill-in-the-blank enough. But that’s just how it’s always going to be. And I always respond to that by saying “You’re welcome to create work of your own and do it the right way. If you think I’m doing it the wrong way, you should do it the right way. Because I feel like I’m doing it beyond the right way.”
I sleep so well at night because of all the things I walk away from and say “no” to, because it compromises my integrity as an artist. So, I sleep like a baby because of it. Because I don’t just take checks. I don’t do any of the things they tell you to do when you get into Hollywood. I only pursue my passions. I only tell stories that really move me. And I’m in pursuit of stories that, again, speak to our humanity. You know what I mean?
I don’t want to wallow in cynicism. I remember before the pandemic hit, [Soul co-writer and co-director] Pete Docter and I would have conversations. We’re trying to make this film and it almost feels like we’re too earnest for the world right now. You know, like the film we’re making, we’re attempting to be earnest and literally say everyone’s life has value. No matter what you do, your life means something. We were inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. You know what I mean?
There’s that great scene in Soul with the barber where that’s expanded upon.
Absolutely. That’s what really broke that scene open for me. I wonder sometimes, if we hadn’t had that crazy year, how Soul might have been received. It was so strange to see how much it moved people. It caught me and Pete off guard because there were times making it, we’re thinking “Man, are we just being too earnest?” Because it felt like no one was being earnest. Everything was snarky and cynical and self-deprecating. I’ve grown weary of that. I really have. Just like I’ve grown weary of it in my daily life. And so I don’t want to make art that contributes to that. I can still enjoy a certain amount of it but that’s not really what I’m out there to create. I just want to put stuff out there that reminds people how we are not only interconnected but we’re co-dependent. And we won’t accept that, like we actually kind of all need each other. [laughs]
Do you see yourself as a Black artist or as an artist?
Black artist. Me at 20 would have said “Fuck that. I’m a Black artist.” [laughs] And that’s because that’s how I’m always going to be seen. That’s how I’m always going to be seen by the world around me. And I got to a really happy Zen place when I accepted that. Because there was a long period of time when, as a writer, almost to prove to people that I could, it was: “I want to tell stories that don’t have any Black characters in it to show that I’m just a writer.” But then I realized the totality of life exists within Black people just like it does within White people. So there’s no story I can’t tell with White characters anyway [laughs] and I feel like that’s how the world is going to brand me. It’s important for me to wear that as a badge of honor because I just feel like, particularly when I was younger, I bought into this idea that somehow Black stories weren’t as good. You know, what I mean? Weren’t as high quality as White stories. White stories were universal and Black stories were niche. And I don’t believe that anymore.
Going forward, would you like it to be more melting pot at some point, where you’re just an artist?
I don’t care. I give it no thought anymore. I tell whatever story I happen to want to tell and populate it with the characters that I want to populate it with. I’m very lucky right now. I am privileged in that because of the year that I had, people are approaching me with all different kinds of stories. I’ve said “no” to some very mainstream stuff. If it’s not interesting, it’s not interesting. Doesn’t matter what race the characters are. I’ll tell the stories that I want to tell when I want to tell them. I feel like I’m in a kind of rarefied air in that a different set of doors opened to me in the past year. And I just remain committed to telling stories I’m super excited about.
There was no plan that said “direct the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sequel.” I just love the Miles Morales character. I was a big fan of [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller as writers and directors from 21 Jump Street. I thought their comedy is hilarious. My mantra has always been “make dope shit with cool people” and doing that – as you see with Pete and Regina – has borne incredible fruit for me and I just want to keep on doing that.
I think it says a lot that you say you can sleep well at night. I know “successful” people who cannot.
Right. And that’s the funny thing. Like Soul, I’m still amazed that we pulled that one off because Soul is really fucking putting you in my shoes, in the shoes of a creative. You are going on that journey. That’s the thing that Pete and I had in common. Pete told me his inspiration for even wanting to tell the story was he won the Oscar for Inside Out and the next morning had to go to work. It was “Okay, if you’re broken, it’s not going to fix you at all.” We all create some mountaintop and think that somehow we get to the other side of it and anything is going to be different. And, for even the most successful artist, the reality doesn’t change at all. Two thirds of the way through the film, our hero gets his desire, he plays the big gig, and then he feels dissatisfaction and emptiness.
I remember when Trent [Reznor] and Atticus [Ross] came on board to score the film. They got it immediately. That’s what made them love the film. Because Trent was like “I thought all I got to do is become a rock star and play in a stadium. And it didn’t change anything.” Being whole is not going to happen because of any of that superficial shit.
Do you think that part of the problem in Hollywood is the numerous award shows and so people have become focused on awards?
I don’t know because I wasn’t focused on them.
The irony is, of course, that the award comes to you when you’re just –
When you’re doing your work, yeah. There was no point when we were on set for One Night in Miami… that we were thinking “If we do this well, this could be an Award nominee.” In fact, I’d argue that the bigger question was “Is anyone going to see this movie?” [laughs]
Was that really a concern on the set? After you had all the success with the play?
Yes. Keep in mind, we did it independently. It got sold to Amazon. But when you don’t have a distributor or a studio and you’re making a film, what’s for sale isn’t the idea. It isn’t the team. There’s no package. What’s for sale is the completed movie. You know what I mean?
Well, you did have a Tony Award winner [Leslie Odom Jr.] in one of the major roles.
There are films that go into those film festivals with bigger casts than ours that get skewered and never get distribution. Or they do get distribution and they get buried and literally no one ever sees the film. It comes out quietly in a straight-to-DVD release. I have very, very good friends who have movies in the can that don’t have distribution right now. With stars of the same caliber as One Night in Miami… and there’s no distribution. So I think people take for granted how hard it is to actually make a movie, particularly when you do it independently.
And once the film festivals started canceling [due to the Covid pandemic], we were sweating bullets. We lucked out that Amazon bought the film before we even debuted at the film festivals. We got great reviews at the film festivals but we didn’t know. We never even got to screen One Night in Miami… for friends and family because of Covid. The first audience that saw One Night in Miami… outside of me, Regina, and the producers was the opening night Venice Film Festival crowd. That was like the mix had been done on the sound like a week before. No one had seen the movie. We didn’t even know what we had yet. [laughs]
There’s something wonderful about that. If you’re doing something that you love, something you believe in, then you will ignore the demons that can plague you.
At the time I was writing it, in my heart I felt like no one else would tell that story the way I would. I felt like, “Oh, man, if I could just tell this story, I’m going to tell it in this very specific way that I think will just connect with people and no one else would do it this way.” That was a real motivating factor for me. At the time you say “It’s worth the risk.” But what’s really the risk personally? They get what little money I don’t have in my bank account and they shut down our 99-seat production? Because they could have shut us down immediately. But the only thing I believed in my heart more than the fact that I was the only person to tell the story was that no one would ever give me a chance to do it. So I had to just do it. That’s what it was. I felt like there is no world where this forty-year-old, who never went to a theater program, was ever going to be given an opportunity to do this through the normal channels.
Right. And you’re not a young voice anymore because you’re over the age of 30.
And that’s what is inspirational. You had the passion and there it is. Whether it worked out or not, you had the passion and you did it.
On the opening preview at Rogue Machine, I remember sitting outside with one of the actors saying “Dude, I could die happy. We got it made!” It just felt like such an achievement: I got it written, we got to produced, we got it made. Carl, who lived in New York, was sleeping in my son’s bunk bed. So many people put so much of their heart and soul into that production because they believed in it. It really did feel like that was the mountaintop back in 2013 as far as telling that story. [laughs]
Everything since then has just been icing and cherries and more icing and more cherries and more because I was totally content back then.
*Feature Image: Kemp Powers / created for Pipeline Artists by Graham Sisk
Originally published July 11, 2021 in Pipeline Artists.