THEATRE: One Night in Miami by Kemp Powers (dir. Matthew Xia for Nottingham Playhouse)

The premise of One Night in Miami sounds too good to be true – Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown talking race, politics, identity and art together in a hotel room in February 1964. That this event actually happened, on the night that Clay became Heavyweight Champion of the world, and less than a year before the deaths of both Malcolm and Cooke, offers Kemp Powers an extraordinary occasion on which to build a tight little play about the struggle, as seen from several different viewpoints.

Three men in a hotel room look at another man in the centre dancing.
When Matt Henry’s Sam Cooke gets going, everyone stops to listen. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.

On Grace Smart’s beautifully realised period set, which includes alleyway in front of the three-sided hotel room, the four actors hold the stage for two hours. The unwise (and apparently late) decision to add an interval to the production interrupts the flow at a crucial point, but otherwise the detailed set acts as a crucible for four massive personalities stuck in a room together, not literally imprisoned but weighed down by real and imagined external pressures and the weight of carrying the cause as well as their own careers.

Ostensibly the evening is about Clay, played with an endearing charm by Conor Glean. This is Clay at 22 years old, boasting about his prettiness and ready to take on the world, but also humbled in the presence of his mentor and other successful friends. He is shocked to hear how much money Jim (Miles Yekinni) got for appearing in a film; thrilled to imagine taking a trip to Mecca with Malcolm (Christopher Colquhoun); and in awe at Sam’s (Matt Henry) voice. He’s enthusiastic to join the Nation of Islam – sort of – but also lured by the money and fame that await him having just won over the world. In many ways, Cassius offers the wide-eyed outsider’s view of a world – that of the prominent black man in 1960s America – that he is just about to join himself.

The real drama is between the other three men. Yekinni plays Jim with a quiet assurance; the NFL star-turned-actor just wants pussy and pork chops, and to get paid. But he’s also more savvy about the race struggle than perhaps anyone else in the room, taking a sideswipe at the light-skinned Malcolm, who he accuses in a heated moment of being aggressive precisely in order to prove something to black folk. There’s a quiet power to Jim which serves to make clear that the more overt politics in the room do not represent the only version of the conflict.

Jim’s interventions serve to prevent the more overt antagonism between Malcolm and Sam getting out of hand, and in Colquhoun and Henry, Matthew Xia has cast two of the most intense, charismatic actors he could have found. Colquhoun’s Malcolm has the weight of the world on his shoulders – he has recently had death threats from the Brotherhood of Islam, and is effectively a prisoner at the hands of his ‘bodyguards’, gauche Jamaal (an adorabl Oseloka Obi) and the much more threatening Kareem (André Squire). Malcolm is a force of nature and clearly right on, but also the most conflicted of the four, which drives his constant interrogation of them as he exhorts them to do more in the name of the cause, mentors Cassius in his conversion, and accuses Sam of pandering to the white man with his version of soul music.

The most potent parts of Powers’s script see Sam and Malcolm debate their strategies. Malcolm wants Sam to use his voice to speak out for the struggle, but Sam counters that his production strategies – including letting the Rolling Stones cover a Bobby Womack song that brings in untold royalties, allowing him to assert that the Stones are out there working for him – are just as effective and part of the struggle. Malcolm’s clear unhappiness bursts out towards the end as he tells Sam that he can’t leave, and wants to go back to a time when his faith was simpler; yet Malcolm’s pressure on them all comes from a place of righteousness. But Sam’s exuberance elevates him. Henry bursts out of the set and into the auditorium during a spellbinding ‘Somebody Have Mercy On Me’, in which his performance of a gospel version of the song threatens to bring down the house. But the finest performance is left for the moment when he reveals that, despite his resistance to Malcolm, he has written a song about racial tensions. Henry’s performance of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ begins a capella, then brings in a full backing track as the others listen, open-mouthed, smiling and moved. That Sam Cooke would be dead later that year meant he never saw his influence, but his song – delivered stunningly by Henry – is a beacon of hope; and as Malcolm sings it quietly to himself in the play’s final seconds while the two ‘bodyguards’ stand threateningly over him, the two men finally seem to have come into alignment.

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