Muhammad Ali died in June and now the legendary boxing champ has been theatrically reborn: young once again blazing with energy and with his future ahead of him, but the world already at his feet in Kemp Power's speculative and absorbing bio-drama, One Night in Miami (Donmar Warehouse), directed by British actor turned playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. The play draws on real events, yet imagines a pivotal moment in history that never actually happened.
It is February 1964 and a 22-year-old Cassius Clay has just won the heavy weight boxing title against Sonny Liston. But instead of hitting the town, he chooses to celebrate in a Miami hotel room with his three closest friends: activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and American football star Jim Brown.
To the outside world they were American icons. But in that hotel room, here were four men who understood each other and their moment in history, in a way that no one else could. With the civil rights movement stirring outside and the melody ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ hanging in the air, these men would emerge from that room ready to define a new world.
Indeed the new world that the heavyweight champion Cassius Clay would make begins with the ‘official transition’ from one name (with its slave connotations) under the guidance of Malcolm X.
This play presents a snapshot of Black America rather than an in-depth examination, creating a call-and-response, sometimes supportive, sometimes combative between different visions of what blackness can mean at tipping point in American racial history. The verbal sparring between the characters, however, is both witty and insightful. There is a grudge match between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, the former asking why the famous singer prefers ineffectual schmaltz to racial-minded music, and the latter responding with persuasive arguments: he’s wooing the white folk, making his living from them.
Kwame Kwei-Armah draws top-flight performances from his main quartet of actors. Sope Dirisu brings a mixture of charm and mischief to the role of Ali, together with a callowness that is understandable in a man of his age but unbecoming in a hero. Francois Battiste makes a complex and introspective Malcolm X, combining angry clarity and a gift for getting other people’s attention, while remaining rather aloof. David Ajala impresses as the robust, yet frustrated Jim Brown, while Arinzé Kene brings hidden depths as well as a canny business sense to the role of Same Cooke, and his rendering of the tune ‘Somebody Have Mercy on Me’, is one of the highlights of the show.
Furthermore the production has fluidity, which although set in a hotel room, prevents it from being static and claustrophobic. The result is a fascinating evening in the theater!
One Night in Miami
Showing at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 December 2016Last modified: October 25, 2016