It’s been a while since a play moved me to tears, which makes One Night in Miami a very special production.
Set on the night of February 25, 1964, it is a fictional retelling of an actual event. Cassius Clay (Sope Dirisu), not yet Ali, has just become the heavyweight champion of the world. But rather than party on the town (which would be hard for a black man to do in the segregated South anyway), he instead meets with his mentor, Malcolm X (Francois Battiste), and his friends Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene) and American football player Jim Brown (David Ajala).
But in the confines of a rundown hotel room they have rented, this triumphalism at victory becomes tempered and derailed with arguments about emancipation, the struggle for freedom, and the responsibility of black men in the public eye, such as themselves, in spearheading that fight. The agitator is, of course, Malcolm and he sets out to persuade, urge and finally force his friends to confront the fact that their achievements mean nothing in a world that robs them of their rights and their dignity.
It’s frightening that a play set in 1964, with the examination of the Civil Rights movement at its heart, is so desperately relevant. But, of course, that is exactly the point. Look at the American election; hell, just look at America every day – white supremacy is deeply entrenched and institutionalised. White violence is not history. But what struck me most about this superb play was how so much of the nature of the debate remains the same.
The three celebrities are proud of their success and see it as, in some way, a challenge to the racism in their lives – that they can achieve such fame in a world that denies them equality. It is, of course, a powerful argument – that just to be seen to be breaking these barriers was a powerful subliminal message to the next generation – both black and white. But for Malcolm, this is not enough. In fact, he sees it as hollow.
There are so many great interchanges here that it’s impossible (and undesirable in a review!) to list them all, but that pressure on these young men – who have already suffered so much – to take on the mantle of responsibility… Though it galvanises Malcolm, you can see how it depresses and exhausts the others. What they would give just to be able to live their lives in peace.
And that need to always keep the struggle front and centre in their mind and their actions… Malcolm berates Sam again and again for his lack of activism, complaining that his songs are too saccharine. Sam counters that he is thinking smart, he is thinking economically – he points out that he sold a song from his hit factory to The Rolling Stones, knowing it would reap huge amounts in royalties for the black writers. Sam’s proud of this, showing how he’s turning the capitalist game in favour of the black man. Malcolm isn’t.
What’s interesting about this, is that this is exactly the criticism that was levelled at Jay Z, Notorious BIG and other ‘big pimpin’ style rappers and hip hop artists in the Nineties. These artists flouted their dollars and their riches and they were swiftly condemned by other black artists for playing into the white man’s game and forgetting about where they came from.
The wheel turns, what progress is made?
What is so desperately sad about this, of course, is it seems to be the lot of the oppressed to argue amongst themselves on the best way to oppose oppression whilst the white man maintains his dominance. This is what gives Malcolm his fire, his demand that there can only be one way to fight oppression – head on.
And yet writer Kemp Powers deftly observes the issues for the oppressed, how complex the matter is, with its foreshadowing of the problems Malcolm would have with the Nation of Islam – black men who would go on to assassinate their own.
But it’s impossible to ignore the sympathy for Malcolm X here – not that this is a criticism at all. In fact, given the way of the world, Malcolm may well have been proven right. Unquestionably the show’s most powerful moment is when, after further criticism from Malcolm, Sam confides to Jim he has been writing a political song. And as the powerful lyrics of A Change is Gonna Come sing out, footage of Black Lives Matter marches and the Ferguson protests are beamed across the backdrop. It’s like a dagger to the heart. Tears welled up in my eyes, though whether those tears are more because a change has not come, I’m not sure. Progress is slow.
The acting across the board is superb. It’s a nightmare proposition for an actor to bring to life an iconic figure, to respect their tics and habits, yet also steer away from the performance being a caricature yet all four principals are terrific.
With such strong performances from all it seems mean to highlight one but, it must be said, Francois Battiste as Malcolm X is breath-taking. His soft delivery, his pause for deliberation before replying to any question, the weight on his shoulders… It’s a spellbinding performance. And all such a well-observed counterpoint to the machismo and laddish behaviour of his three friends.
There is so much to admire here, and in a short 90-minute show. The script from Kemp Powers is tight and direction from Kwame Kwei-Armah balances out the tough dramatic message with moments of real levity and humour.
The remaining dates for this run at the Donmar are already sold out (though tickets are released every Monday through the Front Row initiative). So resonant is the message in this show, I hope it continues to have a long run elsewhere as this show deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Powerful and moving.
Donmar Warehouse, London to December 3, 2016
Tickets from £10.
1 Left Sope Dirisu (Cassius Clay) and right David Ajala (Jim Brown) in One Night in Miami… at the Donmar Warehouse Photographer Joha
2 L-R David Ajala (Jim Brown), Sope Dirisu (Cassius Clay) and Arinzé Kene (Sam Cooke) in One Night in Miami… Photographer Johan Persson
3 L-R Dwane Walcott (Kareem), Francois Battiste (Malcome X) and Josh Williams (Jamaal) in One Night in Miami… Photographer Johan Persson