The Theatreguide.London Review
In Miami. . .
Donmar Theatre Autumn 2016
By happy coincidence the two best plays of 2016 have opened within weeks of each other and are currently playing. And perhaps by more than coincidence they also share being written by Americans and being about the ultimate American subject, race.
Alongside Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home From The Wars at the Royal Court we now have at the Donmar Kemp Powers's One Night In Miami, a drama that is emotionally resonant and intellectually stimulating in equal proportions.
The setting for the play is February 25, 1964, the night that brash young prizefighter Cassius Clay became world heavyweight champion, and the night before he announced his conversion to Islam and adoption of the name Muhammad Ali.
Playwright Powers imagines what was evidently an actual event, a post-fight celebration involving Clay/Ali, soul singer Sam Cooke, football star Jim Brown and Malcolm X, star preacher of the Nation of Islam, a marginal Chicago-based movement devoted more to black separatism than religion.
(Ironically, after making his most famous convert, Malcolm would reject the Nation's stridency and move toward a more inclusive and peaceful vision of Islam, leading to his murder within a year. Ali also later distanced himself from the Nation.)
The four, all strong, proud black men, share an anger at racial prejudice in America and a conviction that the time is now for them to do something to fight it. They differ only in preferred strategies and methods, leading to a string of passionate but always mutually respectful arguments.
Not least among the play's pleasures is its convincing portraits of the men's friendships and enjoyment of each other's company.
But the deeply felt and eloquently expressed debates also place Powers in the select group of neo-Shavian playwrights who can make the exchange of ideas theatrically alive and engrossing.
Clay himself, seen by the playwright as a promising but still unformed young man, actually plays little part in the discussions, though actor Sope Dirisu shows him watching and learning, so that we sense the seeds of the courageous moral force he would display in the coming years.
The play's focus is on the other three. Fiery ideologue Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) is the purist, insisting that opposition to the status quo be open, direct and forceful, if not necessarily violent.
He is offended, for example, by the compromises and sell-out implied by Sam Cooke's softening his music to court white audiences, but Cooke (Arinze Kene) lays out his long plan of seducing whites into appreciation of black culture, and taking a lot of their money in the process.
Though not yet 40, Jim Brown (David Ajala) functions as respected veteran in the debates, quietly explaining his strategy of providing black youngsters with a positive role model while privately funding black causes and business start-ups.
All agree on where they're going and the necessity of getting there, and one of the play's deeply satisfying revelations is that parallel and seemingly separate paths can converge on the same goal.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, himself an admired playwright and actor, clearly understands all the text's insights and nuances, and guides his actors to rounded and textured characterisations that never slip into the stereotypes or one-dimensional mouthpieces a less sensitive director might have allowed.
Sope Dirisu's open-hearted and cheerful Clay, Arinze Kene's canny Cooke and Francois Battiste's passionate but tightly buttoned-down Malcolm all deserve praise, but it is David Ajala's quietly authoritative senior statesman Brown that repeatedly dominates scenes and serves as our guide through the debates.
The play is not perfect. The Clay character is woefully underused and marginalised, and the mechanics of having characters take turns leaving the room so the others can argue among themselves are sometimes clumsy.
But this is a drama that makes you think as well as feel, that adroitly carries the weight of being about something important, and that is performed with style and energy – and that is too rare and thrilling an event to miss.
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