running until 3 December
The premise for Kemp Powers’s One Night In Miami… seems too extraordinarily coincidental to be true. But it is, in its bare bones. This is a fictionalised account of a real meeting that took place between four friends on 25 February 1964: Cassius Clay, fresh from winning the heavyweight world title, Sam Cooke, on the point of releasing ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, Jim Brown, at the peak of his NFL career, and Malcolm X, on the brink of breaking with the Nation of Islam. These four men stood at the edge of a pivotal moment, and Powers’s script digs into the tensions, uncertainties, inspirations and dreams at the heart of a unique time in American history.
The mood starts off jubilant. Clay (Sope Dirisu), full of as much likeability as youthful arrogance, is bouncing off the walls with joy, recreating his title-winning fight over Sonny Liston. Cooke (Arinzé Kene) and Brown (David Ajala) are keen to get the party started, while Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) has more serious things on his mind. Conversations sway from the quality of the ice-cream to their responsibility in the fight for civil rights, but Powers’s slick and funny dialogue means the 90-minute play bounds along even in the heavier topics.
The show is cast perfectly: the central quartet of Dirisu, Kene, Ajala and Battiste match each other’s energy and it’s a real ensemble effort, though Kene stands out for his silky soulful vocals – in particular his rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which creates a beautiful moment of stillness in the show’s momentum. While One Night In Miami represents a very special point in American history, with issues of civil rights and political urgency colliding in this one room and across the nation, its themes are incredibly pertinent for our own political turmoil: should we step up and protest or stay quiet and stay safe? If you don’t protest against inequality are you condoning it? Is there more than one way to create political and social change, and how can individuals make a difference? Is cultural infiltration or separatist preservation the way forward? There’s so many big questions woven through the piece and highlighted in Cooke and Malcolm X’s big showdown, but it’s impressive how many laughs we also get throughout. Powers is striking a deft balance.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Donmar, and it’s good to be reminded of why it is one of London’s most impressive off West End venues, with its commitment to brilliant story-telling and its ability to create big moments in a small space. All credit to director Kwame Kwei-Armah and his cast for this punchy and engaging show.
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