Fast forward to 2016: the Black Lives Matter movement is soberingly necessary, white supremacists have a powerful, potentially presidential, new pin-up – and Kemp Powers’ potent play about one night back in 1964 is unnervingly prescient. Perhaps more impressively, the political punch is delivered with plenty of humorous, human jabs.
A real life encounter between boxer Muhammad Ali, activist Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and American Football star Jim Brown forms the backdrop for One Night in Miami.
Playwright Kemp Powers imagines the conversations played out behind the closed doors of the hotel room on the night 22-year-old Cassius Clay was declared the Heavyweight Champion of the world. The next day, as history records, he announced his conversion to Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Ali.
We are given a fly-on-the-wall view into the exchanges between the four, now mythic, men.
It takes a few minutes to adjust to the macho jesting, as Clay (Sope Dirisu) re-enacts the glory moments from his fight, with a benignly boyish flash of hubris and excitement.
Thanks to exceptional performances all round the play is an intimate insight into the dynamic between four friends, and a thought-provoking exploration of the ‘right’ way to be free. David Ajala raises laughs as tough-guy athlete Jim Brown, while Arinzé Kene is pure soulful charisma as singer Sam Cooke. Amidst these vibrant, talented young men, Malcolm X, played with twitchy intensity by Francois Battiste, unsettles the celebrations.
Debates around issues of race form the crux of the drama, yet the characters never feel like mouthpieces for philosophies and ideals.
A simple but effective hotel room set creates a sense of containment. With a stage populated by black men, the white world beyond is conjured only through descriptions of prejudice and abuse. The result is a sense of ‘us and them’ separation.
As we gazed around the audience, dominated by the typical white-wash of most West End theatres, the division felt palpable.
Not that any audience member is being lectured nor battered into a particular conclusion. Instead One Night in Miami floats, butterfly-like, between lightness and profundity, and leaves you with a stinging sense of relevance and irresolution.
|What||One Night in Miami, Donmar Theatre review|
|Where||Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London, WC2H 9LX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
06 Oct 16 – 03 Dec 16, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|Price||£7.50 - £60+|
|Website||Click here to book via the Donmar|