tue 21/11/2017

One Night in Miami , Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

One Night in Miami..., Donmar Warehouse

One Night in Miami..., Donmar Warehouse

Engaging study of pivotal figures in modern African American history

Sope Dirisu (left) as Cassius Clay and David Ajala as Jim BrownJohan Persson

Kemp Powers’s play is set in a motel room in Miami on the night of 25 February 1964, after Cassius Clay (as Muhammad Ali then was) had earlier beaten Sonny Liston to gain the world heavyweight title. He is joined by two friends, the singer Sam Cooke and the American football star Jim Brown, and his political and spiritual mentor, the civil rights activist Malcolm X.

Inspired by real-life friendships, but heavily fictionalised by Powers, this set-up allows the playwright to examine momentous times for African Americans – within days Ali announced he was joining the Nation of Islam and casting off his “slave name”, while Malcolm X’s departure from the organisation followed soon after - from four differing viewpoints. While Malcolm X is preachy and judgmental, and the newly politicised Ali is presented by Powers as an empty vessel waiting to be filled by him, Brown and Cooke are two black men whose talents help them make their way in a white world, one by confronting racism head-on, the other by repackaging gospel songs as popular music for a white audience.

There are some meaty issues to be addressed here and Powers tackles them with verve, mixing personal and political testimony with music (Arinzé Kene as Cooke delivers a heart-stopping “A Change Is Gonna Come”) and even some boysy knockabout comedy as David Ajala as Brown shadow-boxes with Sope Dirisu's Clay, still pumped up after his unexpected (but not to him, he says) win over Liston, and memories of previous nights of male bonding that included hard liquor and soft women.

Each of the four characters has their moment in the spotlight, where we see their vulnerability and why each has chosen how to chart their way through life, but it’s in the conversational exchanges that the layers of friendship, religion, politics and racism (both from white people and within the African American community according to skin tone) shift.

X (Francois Battiste, pictured above) goads Cooke for not using his musical talents to further the cause of the black man in 1960s America, but the singer points out that X has become a humourless drudge since he converted to Islam. Cooke and Brown, meanwhile, both married men, want to celebrate Clay's victory with alcohol and women, and it's amusing to see X's disapproving response to Cooke's request for booze in this most unparty-like atmosphere, bettered only by his reaction to Brown extolling the attractions of white women and the way his grandmother cooks pork chops.

Powers never fully develops any character and relies heavily on our knowledge of them – although, with the presence of two quietly threatening Nation of Islam henchmen (are they there to protect or to imprison Malcolm X?), he neatly hints at what happened the following year when X was assassinated by followers of the organisation.

But Powers packs a lot into 90 minutes, even if One Night in Miami... isn't particularly thought-provoking for audiences who – one assumes – are already well-versed on the black struggle in 1960s America and in the UK in 2016. But with four sterling central performances in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s impassioned and tight production, it is vivifying to see some important arguments so brilliantly rehearsed.

Read more theatre reviews on theartsdesk

There are some meaty issues to be addressed here and Powers tackles them with verve

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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