February 25, 1964 was a pivotal moment in the lives of two icons of modern history. That night in Miami saw pretty-boy boxer Cassius Clay, just 22, snatch the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston and his long-time friend and spiritual mentor, Malcolm X, make a decision that would ultimately result in his death.
After the fight Clay, just a few hours off fully embracing Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, went to a cheap motel room in downtown Miami – one where blacks were allowed to stay – to celebrate with his close friends – Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke, and NFL sporting legend Jim Brown.
Whether this get-together ever took place is open to speculation but it provides the backdrop to a knockout play, written by American playwright, Kemp Powers which has just opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
One Night In Miami leaves the boxing in the ring to concentrate on the affectionate, occasionally tense, personal relationship between four colossus of American culture.
It is less to do with boxing and more tag team wrestling as the four men jostle, confront each other, grapple with their idealism and lifestyle choices, and ultimately embrace their deep-rooted friendship.
I doubt whether Powers knows if the men, all at the top of their game were close, or even if they all came together that night in Miami, but it makes for electrifying drama.
All four men are ambitious, driven and committed but living in an era when segregation, racism and persecution were rife in America. Clay may have just become the Heavyweight Champion of the World but he still couldn’t book a room at Miami’s swankiest hotel.
According to Powers play – and I know next to nothing about American football to dispute it – sporting legend Jim Brown spent a good deal of his time on the sidelines for the Cleveland Browns despite his obvious prowess – before diversifying into acting to supplement his income and career.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s engrossing and sure-footed production opens with Sam Cooke arriving at the shabby room that had been booked by Malcolm. He plays around with a possible new song before the door bursts open and the jubilant Clay, accompanied by Brown, make a noisy entrance.
Sope Dirisu wears Clay’s skin like a boxing glove. Charismatic, mouthy, nimble-footed, brash and poetic he bounces in the room and begins sparring with Brown while reliving his momentous fight, almost blow by blow.
Finally the dour, humourless, Malcolm X arrives accompanied by bodyguards. The radical civil rights leader, who represents the controversial Nation of Islam, has pulled off a major coup by recruiting Clay to the cause.
The only problem is that Malcolm is having doubts about his future with NoI just as he is about to announce Clay’s conversion, and commitment, to the movement.
As the night plays out Malcolm and Sam come to blows over the direction of their ideology, Brown seems caught in the crossfire, and Cassius Clay, so confident in the ring, doubts his own beliefs.
The dynamic between the foursome moves with the speed of one of Clay’s lightning quick punches with the motel room becoming their own personal boxing ring for the fight of their lives.
Dirisu is outstanding as Clay, the glib banter rolling off the tongue, his jabbing and playful punches, endorsing his pile-driver performance.
We listen with delight as Arinzé Kene sings us snatches of Cooke’s You Send Me, A Change Is Gonna Come and Chain Gang and delivers a passionate turn as the doomed singer.
Cooke is frequently vilified by Malcolm for selling out his community to provide music for the white man but the singer, songwriter and producer has an answer for every accusation.
“A line must be drawn. It’s time to take a stand,” Malcolm tells the singer.
Francois Battiste is mesmerising as the fervent and serious Malcolm X. While the other three are dressed in bright leisure wear, the civil rights campaigner is wearing his trademark dark suit and white shirt.
The others want to party to celebrate Clay’s win but the teetotal, devout Muslim, wants them to spend the evening talking and reflecting on how they can use their influence to further the cause. His stance causes increased resentment in the room.
Battiste gives little away facially. Even when he finally admits to being a fan of Cooke’s soulful music, there is no change in his expression. It’s a fascinating and engrossing performance with the actor making you hang on every word.
Of the four David Ajala’s Brown is the most underwritten. He spends most of the play umpiring the fractious verbal parries between the other three men.
There’s plenty of humour in Powers’ play from the men’s jocular banter, the glib Clay and the idealistic, flirtatious Cooke. I loved Cooke’s hilarious description of “Sister Flute,” the (normally, overweight, elderly and devout) woman found in most black churches who is possessed by religious fervour.
One Night In Miami has been a long time coming but it is set to go the distance at the Donmar Warehouse. Running until December 3.
One Night In Miami
One Night In Miami is a thrilling drama that puts in the ring four of the most charismatic titans of American culture to trade punches about friendship, ideology, racism and fame.