Review: One Night in Miami, Donmar Warehouse

A few weeks ago I saw One Night In Miami. This play centres around leading African-American figures in the 1960s and sheds light on their experience of living in a society with high racial tensions. My immediate thoughts were that it serves as a welcome reminder as to how much the US has progressed since then. However given the results of the recent US Presidential Election, one might question how much change there has actually been. But on deeper reflection, I think this play provides us with an important lesson about human resolve that we can learn from.

One Night in Miami takes place on the night of February 25th 1964, when 22 year old Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammed Ali, had just won the World Heavy Weight Champion title. He celebrates with his good friends, activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown in a Miami Hotel room. The writer, Kemp Powers, has taken artistic licence and imagined in this play how their conversation went. In doing so, he has created a piece which takes an interesting snapshot of what America was like through the lens of these figures.

At first the play invites the audience to get comfortable with the different characters and imagine that we are privy to a private conversation. We get to know their behaviours, mannerisms and the dynamics between the individual personalities. Sope Dirisu brilliantly plays the confidence and boyish charm of Cassius Clay; he is giddy in the way that he is often stretching or giving anecdotes through engaging his friends to take part in the storytelling. Francois Battiste plays the resolute yet troubled Malcom X convincingly and you feel the paranoia he has begun to develop with regards to his position within the Nation of Islam. David Ajala also does a good job of portraying the calm and good humoured football star Jim Brown. Arinzé Kene stars as the sharp-minded soul-singer Sam Cooke, in special moments we are treated to his rendition of Sam Cooke songs and his voice is truly breath-taking.

During the course of their conversation a lot is revealed, from their future aspirations to their attitudes towards sex. The conversation heightens as they discuss race relations in America and the uncomfortable reality of being a black public figure in 1960s America. It is strange to think that even though these public figures were revered across America, they were treated as second class citizens and often not with the same respect as their white counterparts. Although nowadays we do pass judgments on celebrities and have varying degrees of respect for them, these views are typically based on their actions and hardly ever to do with something as trivial as their skin colour. But in response to this treatment and the behaviour that they saw around them, each of the men worked in their own way to change attitudes.

I was most interested in Sam Cooke’s perspective on tackling racism. Malcolm X really challenges what Sam Cooke, the King of Soul, has done to support the Civil Rights movement. I believe that he was arguably ahead of the curve and saw that freedom from prejudice in part derives from achieving economic freedom. He worked hard to drive success with his record label not only to liberate himself and but also other black artists. But he later comes to acknowledge the power that music has to shine a light on racial issues, and discusses a new song he’s been working on, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ (I would encourage you to listen to this passionate rendition by Al Green). The lyrics communicates this simple message about endurance and knowing that although circumstances do not change overnight, we should remain focussed on seeing the change that we’d like to see become a reality.

I think there is a lot that can be learnt from the history presented in this play which provides me with a sense of hope. It is difficult to judge with confidence what the future direction of a Trump Administration will be. Perhaps as some American commentators have said during his campaign a lot of the controversial things he said was just for show. For the people characterised in this play, it wasn’t about fearing the risk that their society would discriminate against minority groups, rather discrimination was an institutional reality and embedded in social norms. But instead of being paralysed by fear they worked to achieve the change that they wanted to see in their own world. The play, this short snapshot in history, demonstrates the power of human will and what can be achieved overtime with the right focus.

Overall, I enjoyed watching this show but it is only later reflection that it has become more meaningful to me.

Rating 7/10

My On the Spot Review, where I’m joined by my friend Niki, is below.


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