Kemp Powers play One Night In Miami is on at the Donmar Theatre. Congratulations to the Donmar for hosting a play featuring four iconic black men. It is an engaging play, based on a historical event we know little about. It’s 25 February 1964 the night that Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston. He is crowned the heavy weight champion of the world. Clay, the youngest of the four men, meets his friends Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X, ostensible to celebrate his victory.
One Night In Miami
The scene is set in a simple hotel room at Hampton House motel which effectively divides white America and black America. All four men are in a period of transition. Just 12 hours later Clay will declare himself a Muslin and Muhammad Ali. Sam Cooke, King of Soul, is torn between his commercially successfully love ballads and releasing something politically aware. Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns running back, is set to go into the movies and Malcolm X, a devoted Muslim, is on the verge of leaving The Nation of Islam.
The play does not explore Malcolm X’s dilemma but we see Malcolm goading Sam Cooke to use his platform to create meaningful music. The tension hangs in the air. Malcolm also tries to steer Jim Brown to a more righteous path: Islam. Amongst his none practising friends, understandably, Clay’s (Sope Dirisu) misgivings about becoming Muslim. His insecurity about being a spokesman for black people are the most touching especially in contrast to his opening locker room banter.
The dialogue is humorous as well as sharp and dramatic. Jim Brown’s character (David Ajala) is cleverly used to break the tension between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. It also stops the play becoming mawkish. Brown explains to Malcolm he cannot become a Muslin because of his “Grandmother’s pork chops”. Nonetheless, fun loving Brown shares a dark moment of racism. Ajala performance is convincing.
The Boundaries of Race
What is clear that despite their financial success, each of these men are still trapped by the colour of their skin. Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene) finds temporary respite when performing his uncompromised version of “You Send Me”. Throughout the play Kene gives a sterling performance anyway, but he freed my soul during that rendition. The movies are lucrative for Jim Brown. But as Malcolm points out, the black hero never makes it to the end. He does find freedom, however, doing physical damage on the playing field, as Clay does in the ring. Malcolm, (Francois Battiste) is twice trapped: by racism and the leaders of Islam. Battiste is splendid as Malcolm X, from his minute gestures of finger pointing and twitching cheeks to his delivery and quiet anguish.
One Night In Miami @Donmar Warehouse, to 03 December 2016
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