One Night In Miami…
13 October 2016
It’s the night that Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight championship in 1964. He spent that night in a motel room with Sam Cooke, a huge influence on music at the time and since, football star Jim Brown, about to begin his career in movies, and Malcolm X, soon to split from the Muslim Brotherhood. The next morning, Clay will announce his intention to change his name to Mohammad Ali. It must have been an extraordinary night, and writer Kemp Powers does a fine job imagining the conversations and making these legends feel like real, well-rounded characters.
In many ways, the fight continues in the hotel room. In one corner Malcolm X, fighting the system from the outside, already portrayed as a dangerous figure by the authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood itself. In the opposing corner, Sam Cooke, arguing that playing within the system means more people will hear his music, and as he owns the rights, he is the one making the money for himself and other black composers. Malcolm X argues that Cooke softens his sound for white audiences, and goads him by playing Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, arguing that Cooke should have written that song. What the others don’t know is that Cooke has recorded, but not released, A Change is Gonna Come, his classic song that is still powerfully relevant.
In this autumn of excellent London ensembles, (Kenny Morgan at the Arcola, The Boys in the Band at the Park), this cast take their place in that group. Sope Dirisu captures perfectly Clay’s swagger, riding high on his victory over Sonny Liston, with a superb “Ali shuffle”, crackling with energy, but also revealing a 22-year-olds naive streak and burgeoning politics. As Jim Brown, David Ajala is a commanding presence, muscular in voice and characterisation, a witty counterpoint to the political debate taking place around him. Francois Battiste is a still, passionate, angry and committed Malcolm X, all too aware of how the outside world views him and black men in general, frustrated that the others cannot reach the same level of activism as he does- that fact that Malcolm X is at a different, wiser stage of his life than the other, younger, men is beautifully conveyed. But it is Arinze Kene who takes the honours as Sam Cooke, a beautiful, layered performance that ultimately breaks your heart. In two outstanding sequences, he sings and vocally becomes Cooke in front of our ears, once re-enacting a gospel version of You Send Me, engaging with the Donmar audience and lighting up the spirit of soul music. The other is his beautiful acapella version of A Change is Gonna Come towards the end of the play, with a montage of violence towards black people, and protests by black people screened above the stage. We need no reminding that Black Lives Matter, that a change is still to come, but this emotional rendition lifts the play to a higher level.
The men are not shielded from the bigotry that exists outside of this hotel room and talk and argue about race and power, and even different skin tones. Traditionally structured, Powers has the characters discussing things they should already know, and that is often the problem in scripts that have to inform an audience as well as entertain, and occasionally the text doesn’t feel fully natural. However, he also doesn’t air brush out the flaws in each man, and Kwame Kwei- Armah’s sensitive direction perfectly follows the rhythms of punch and reflection. Given the personalities of the four men on stage, the play could have been over fuelled by testosterone. The beauty of the script is that it throws out punches that bring you up short by its unflinching look at racism, and at other times deftly takes your head and gently makes you look at the struggle that still continues, and that a change HAS to come. These are men dancing on the edge of their own history, and the fact that we know their histories, (two of them killed by violence), makes the play highly poignant. A highly rewarding evening at the theatre.
Until 3 December 201