One Night in Miami…**** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: October 15, 2016 in Theatre

one-night-in-miamiA meeting between four men that took place more than half a century ago and an imagined discussion about social change are hardly the most thrilling starting points for a play. No plot. apart from that given by history, no dramatic incidents, just talk and argument (plus a couple of songs), which makes it remarkable that writer Kemp Powers has managed to craft such an absorbing 90-minutes of theatre.

Robert Jones’ set design incorporates touches of Art Deco to establish the location of the hotel room in which the meeting takes place. The time is February 1964, just after Cassius Clay has beaten Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Clay, played by Sope Dirusu with little of the swagger associated with the public persona, is seen as naive and impressionable, under the influence of Malcolm X, as he prepares to announce the following day that he is converting to Islam and changing his name to Mohammed Ali. Fellow sportsman, American football star Jim Brown (David Ajala) finds it easy to resist pressure to make a similar conversion on the grounds that it would mean foregoing the pleasures of his grandma’s pork chops.

The core of the play is the clash of ideals between Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) and singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene), the former pushing for militant action to advance American civil rights, the latter preferring slow change to a system that is seeing him coming out on top by making records that reach white audiences and selling songs to the likes of the Rolling Stones. The argument is revolution versus evolution. Cooke entertains the group with a performance of the innocuous You Send Me, but faces taunts that it has taken a white man (Bob Dylan) to write the first great song for Black Americans, Blowing in the Wind (repeated tributes to Dylan in the play feel particularly apt in the week when he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). Cooke’s hurt is visible in Kene’s expression and his retaliation, a preview performance, sung a cappella, of A Change is Gonna Come is stunning; this should have ended the play with an exclamation mark and it is rather a pity that it continues for a few more minutes to reach anticlimax.

Neither Malcolm X nor Cooke was destined to survive another full year after this meeting, the suggestion being made that Malcolm X was more a prisoner of the Nation of Islam movement than a free revolutionary leader and that his life was under threat long before his assassination. Kene stands out among four superb performances in Kwame Kwel-Armah.s solid production. The play leaves open the question of which of the two approaches to change history has proven to be right. Notwithstanding the presence of a black President in the White House, sickening news and statistics still coming out of American cities indicate that, sadly, the answer could be neither.

Performance date: 14 October 2016

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