Within the intimate space of the Donmar Warehouse a political struggle from the past illuminates our current political climate in One Night In Miami.
In a week when Donald Trump’s so-called ‘political movement’ backtracks on many of the retrograde policies he espoused on the campaign trail, I saw Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay hold a private meeting to discuss the way forward for their political movement.
In a week when those vacuous visitors to the Trump tower jockey for position in an illegitimate presidency, I saw four accomplished black leaders grapple with the meaning of power, authenticity and faith.
In a week when Bob Dylan announced that he won’t make the trip to Stockholm to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, I saw Malcolm X chastise Sam Cooke for selling out to the white audience with meaningless pop songs.
In a week that saw Marine Le Pen officially enter the race for leadership in France, with a divisive and nationalist agenda, I saw Cassius Clay struggle with his faith and hesitate to announce his commitment to Islam at the very height of his career.
The irony of seeing One Night In Miami could not be more stark, given the current political climate. The Donmar Warehouse’s current production is not just timely, but the importance of hearing salient lessons from non-establishment voices at this moment is crucial.
One Night in Miami is an impressive debut play by Kemp Powers. It takes place on the night of February 25th, 1964. The action follows the victory of Cassius Clay over Sonny Liston for the World Boxing Title, and is a fictional account of the meeting that occurred between the four men, at a hotel in Miami. It pinpoints a pivotal moment in the lives of four black American icons whose potential, motives and personal power are analysed during the ninety minute one-act play. The men, who were real friends, are watched over by Nation of Islam security waiting outside their hotel room.
To cast the four, young lead characters in One Night In Miami would have been an exteremely daunting task for director Kwame Kwei-Armah. Not only did he solve that dilemma, but he and designer Robert Jones, present a theatrical, yet very real illustration, that wisely places the focus on the script, roots the piece in time and place, while bringing illusions of a much bigger world just outside the Miami hotel room door. Duncan McLean’s video design is a very effective addition to the play, as is the clever use of sound and recording by John Leonard.
There is no star in this show. The four actors are a quartet; David Ajala (Jim Brown, talented athlete breaking into movies), Francois Battiste (Malcolm X – political activist), Sope Dirisu (Cassius Clay – the world’s most famous boxer) and Arinzé Kene (Sam Cooke – Recording artist, writer and producer). A fine ensemble, in a perfect dance, a beautifully choreographed conversation of high ideals and the challenge of true friendship.
When Arinzé Kene sachets his way into the aisle and croons directly to the audience it is a perfect reminder of the potent power of these four iconic characters; their fame, their talent, on show. And yet, to witness their doubt and impotence in the face of racism and hatred is literally shocking.
The final scene leaves the audience with a sense of forboding, as the security guards from the Nation of Islam, played effectively by Dwane Walcott and Josh Williams, close in on Malcolm X. Fade to black. Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, celebrated 19th century journalist knew what this play was about when he said, “The more things change, the more they are the same.”