One Night in Miami

Play: One Night in Miami Playwright: Kemp Powers Director: Matthew Xia Venue: Bristol Old Vic Review by Heather Marks  

Matthew Xia’s production of One Night in Miami gives a fascinating insight into the lives of four icons.

This award-winning play by Kemp Powers speculates what happened on the 25th February 1964, the night Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammed Ali), soul star Sam Cooke, footballer Jim Brown and activist Malcolm X celebrated Clay’s crowning as the new heavyweight champion of the world.

The play opens with two Nation of Islam bodyguards, played by Oseloka Obi and Andre Squire, talking while they wait for the stars to arrive. Squire’s stern demeanor forebodes the unsettling revelations later in the play, while Obi’s fan-boy earnestness is endearing.

Sam Cooke (the Olivier Award-winning Matt Henry) is the first to enter and he makes quick criticism of Malcolm X’s lacklustre motel room before the others pile in. Conor Glean, who plays Cassius Clay, is every inch the charismatic braggadocio exuberant in his win; Miles Yekinni stands heads and shoulders above everyone as the football star Jim Brown, playfully indulging Clay’s replays of the fight while Christopher Colquhoun’s Malcolm X is cool and composed as the man history will never forget, even as he searches the motel room for recording devices.

Though Powers’ play is an imagined account of what happened during this real-life event, one is liable to forget that fact the way the dialogue zings back and forth between these four men: Clay’s youthful arrogance and one-liners; Cooke’s quick wit and musical interludes; Brown’s fun-seeking and diplomacy; and X’s stringent discourse.

Glean, Yekinni, Henry and Colquhoun are first-class mediums in the way they bring these men to life. In the privacy of Malcolm’s motel room, Clay, Cooke, Brown and X shed their public personas and are allowed to just be men – hungry for something other than ice cream (and white women in Brown’s case).

Playfulness is one of the most striking things about One Night in Miami. At one point, Brown picks up Malcolm and carries him across the room like a small boy, and it is a joy to see men history has made into monoliths so at ease. But the night is not all fun and games.

Tensions rise between Cooke and X when a certain question puts them on opposite sides: how much should one fight for the cause of black people’s liberation? Cooke – a visionary entrepreneur – defends the economic freedom he provides for other black artists, while Malcolm X – the tireless activist – criticises Cooke for the lack of substance in his music.

It’s a fiery argument that embroils everyone – a punch is thrown and someone storms out – but one that is fought out of love and respect for each person’s position in an America racked by racism. Soon after this night Cooke releases his civil rights anthem A Change Is Gonna Come, Clay converts to Islam and a year later Malcolm X is assassinated.

The simplicity of Grace Smart’s set is easily adapted to transport us from Malcolm X’s motel room to the boxing ring and the concert hall. Music is another element of this production that makes Powers’ play brilliant drama. Matt Henry, enthralling as Sam Cooke, sings classic after classic – even venturing into the audience for one number – and he is arresting when he sings A Change is Gonna Come.

The interval – despite director Matthew Xia’s reasoning – feels unnecessary. The momentum of the first half is lost and the second act is too short to build it up towards the play’s close. This aside, One Night in Miami is a delight and presents not only playfulness but the vulnerability of four men who had the weight of fame, representation and liberation on their shoulders.

One Night in Miami is showing at HOME in Manchester until Friday 5 July.

Book your tickets here.