‘One Night in Miami’ and the NYC Native Who Found Playwriting Success in L.A.

Gordon Cox
·3-min read

The new film “One Night in Miami” began life as a successful play — but New Yorkers might not know that, because despite accolades in Los Angeles and London, the play never got a production in New York.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

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For Kemp Powers, the “One Night in Miami” playwright and writer of the screenplay adaptation (as well as the co-writer and co-director of Pixar’s recent film “Soul”), the experience highlighted what he sees as one of the key differences between New York and L.A. “The wonderful thing about Los Angeles, and I say this as a New Yorker, is the egalitarian nature of the arts here,” Powers said on the latest episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast. “Anyone can do it, and if it connects with an audience, it connects with an audience. It’s a lot less clubby.”

Although Powers now lives in L.A., he was born and raised in New York, and was exposed to theater as a kid. “Theater has had a profound impact on my life, and it changed who I am as a human being. It’s made me open up to the world,” he explained. “But at the same time, theater practitioners are a club that I’ve never been invited to be a part of.”

He added, “I say none of this with bitterness. I say it more to illuminate the fact that none of our businesses are anywhere near as inclusive as we make them out to be.”

Like a lot of creatives and theater makers, he’s hoping the industry will change in the coming months as theater gets back up and running. “One of the interesting things, in a positive way, to come out of this crucible year for all of us, is that being unapologetically Black is now normal,” he said. “When I first wrote [‘One Night in Miami,’], part of what stymied it onstage was a concern that it would alienate white audiences. It was said to me, sometimes directly, sometimes paraphrased, but it was said to me so, so much: ‘If it doesn’t appeal to our subscribers … or if it makes them uncomfortable…’ That there was a certain kind of Black play they wanted to see. That was just such a bummer, and I heard that a lot.”

On the new Stagecraft, Powers also discussed the significant rewrite involved in taking his play script for “One Night in Miami” — “85 minutes of guys in a room” — and opening out the story for the film, while still maintaining some of its theatrical feel. “I don’t even think you get to a single line paraphrased from the play until about 45 minutes into the movie. I kind of started over from scratch,” he said. “The most popular moments in the play aren’t in the film.”

Also on the new episode, the writer talks timeliness, new plays and how the central debate in “One Night in Miami” between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke mirrors his own ongoing internal debate with every new job he takes.

To hear to the full conversation, listen at the link above, or download and subscribe to Stagecraft on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.

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