BWW Review: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, Donmar Warehouse, 13 October 2016
"I shook up the world." So says young gun and new heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (shortly to become Muhammad Ali) in those heady moments after his shock defeat of Sonny Liston in February 1964. But a meeting that same night with three African-American friends of equivalent status - superstar crooner Sam Cooke, NFL hero Jim Brown and controversial preacher Malcolm X - leads to soul-searching about the definition of success, and how best men like Clay can represent their community in a divided nation.
Kemp Powers's play, first seen in LA in 2013, takes this real recorded meeting as the jumping-off point for fiery debate and sparring every bit as gripping as that in the boxing ring. Director Kwame Kwei-Armah uses projections to parallel their discussion with current issues, but it's hardly necessary when horrific events like the recent string of police shootings in America are so ingrained in our news cycle and psyches.
Here, it's not the testosterone-fuelled sportsmen who take the most combatant positions, but the singer and the activist. Malcolm X accuses Cooke of pandering to a white audience rather than voicing the struggle of the civil rights movement - he hasn't produced anything with the potency of (now Nobel-recognised) Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind".
There's nuanced discussion of the responsibility of the artist, as a role model and force for change, and whether economic "freedom" is the first step to respect - as successful businessman Cooke argues - or merely selling out. What good is shifting records, demands Malcolm X, if those same white folks won't allow you to stay in their hotels or join their clubs, and you're only accepted when you tone down your blackness? It's a question still facing artists - look at the outcry when Beyoncé released the unapologetically racially aware Lemonade.
But Jim Brown almost prefers the outright redneck bigotry to subtler, more insidious forms of discrimination, such as the friendly neighbour who has drinks served on the porch while he congratulates Brown on his footballing success - because he doesn't want to invite him into the house. It's the kind of behaviour that undercuts Cooke's argument for cultural integration, and strengthens Malcolm X's belief that there will never be one equal society.
It's to Powers's credit that what could become a dry seminar stays light-footed and punchy. There's too much contrivance in order to bring people in and out of the room, and one too many winkingly ironic jokes (including the requisite Beatles gag), but it's still fizzing with wit and powerful provocation.
The piece benefits from an electrifying cast. Sope Dirisu's Clay is a motor-mouthed ball of energy, his swaggering self-regard made endearing by boyish guilelessness - he's ambivalent about his religious conversion, craving women and booze rather than prayer and lectures. David Ajala's magnetic Brown is shrewd and wry, all too aware of the compromises he's making by appearing in Hollywood films as black guy who dies first (thank god we've solved that problem...).
American actor Francois Battiste turns in a fascinating portrait of Malcolm X, from his carefully mannered delivery and righteous avocation of faith and service to a higher cause, to the flickers of fear as he eyes up his thuggish Nation of Islam handler - though that threat remains a bit too oblique.
He's superbly complemented by the easy, flirtatious swagger and captivating charisma of Arinze Kene's Cooke, the man caught between two worlds. Kene has a knockout soul voice and eloquently conveys Cooke's use of gospel traditions; his anticipated performance of "A Change Is Gonna Come" - referenced by Obama shortly after winning the presidency in 2008 - is spine-tingling.
Who knows if or when that change really will come, here or in the US, but it's heartening to see at least a flicker of it on our stages. This stirring and refreshingly diverse production makes an unassailable argument for the benefits of engaging with a variety of stories and showcasing these outstanding artists.
One Night in Miami is at Donmar Warehouse until 3 December
Photo credit: Johan Persson