Donmar Warehouse Theatre
Okay, I’m probably the only person on earth that didn’t know that, after becoming World Heavyweight Champion of the World, Cassius Clay spent the rest of the evening in a motel room with three other heavyweights – American football star Jim Brown, soul singer Sam Cooke and activist Malcolm X.
I knew Clay shed his ‘slave name’ to become Muhammad Ali and I knew Malcolm X and Cooke were not long for this world but details? Not really…
Kemp Powers’s visceral imagining of what might have been said that night between the four – and two seriously scary ‘minders’ – is affecting and not always in the way I expected to be affected. For starters, almost from the beginning, I genuinely felt I was in the presence of four great men. When they returned to the stage for a curtain call, it was almost as though the real stars were standing there – an odd feeling.
I also felt, though, as a white English woman, in a mainly white audience, just a little awkward – that I wasn’t the intended viewer, however liberal-minded I might be.
If I put that, which could, of course, be my own hangups, to one side, this was compelling stuff. Staggeringly well-acted, each of those men was their real-life character. David Ajala was Jim Brown, all swagger, jokes and secret insecurity. Francois Battiste was the mercurial Malcolm X, all piousness, passion and secret insecurity. Arinze Kene was Sam Cooke, all sharp suits, sharp wit and secret insecurity.And Sope Dirisu was Cassius Clay, all bravado, mouth and, yes, secret insecurity.
As plays go, it’s pretty straight ahead – characters come and go on varyingly spurious premises, so that others can discuss things without them in the room. In many ways, that’s what’s needed – especially for someone like me who needed to know some of the backstory. Indeed, I could probably have taken some more – Malcolm X’s edgy concern for his own safety was rather oblique, though it did prompt me to do quite a lot of googling when I got home.
Where this production sings, though (and sometimes literally) is in the dialogue. Light as Muhammad Ali’s legendary feet, it skips and darts, covering broad, important issues without becoming a lecture.
Perhaps understandably, memorable moments are stolen by Kene who, as Cooke, sings with soul and argues his position as an economic civil rights protester with passion. Other moments, such as Ajala’s description of himself as a football star, invited to a white fan’s house, excited then angry when he realises he won’t be allowed inside, and Dirisu’s quiet second-thoughts on joining the Nation of Islam turning to wild bombast at the sight of reporters are equally memorable. All three dance around Battiste’s quiet charisma in a way that is both unsettling and compulsive.
Kemp has his characters josh with each other, mouth-off, then switch in seconds to discussing serious, world-important issues before turning on a sixpence back to the gags.
However sharp the dialogue, this play is also about what’s not said. There’s always the nagging feeling something’s just about to kick off, though exactly what that something might be remains veiled, making it somehow all the more dangerous.
Indeed the presence of minders outside – at first ‘reassuring,’ slowly disturbing as it becomes increasingly clear that these guys may not be quite the guardians they appear.
At an hour and a half without interval, One Night in Miami is short, sharp and as dangerous as one of Muhammad Ali’s legendary right hook.
One Night in Miami is at the Donmar Warehouse to the 3rd December.